Sen. John Ensign told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his affair with a friend's wife was a mistake but not as bad as former President Bill Clinton's relationship with a White House intern because he didn't lie about it under oath.
"I haven't done anything legally wrong," the Nevada Republican said.
"President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people," Ensign said. "You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury. That's why I voted for the articles of impeachment."
Ensign made the remarks before being introduced to a standing ovation from about 100 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in rural Fernley, about 40 miles east of Reno.
Ensign opened his speech by acknowledging what he called a "distraction."
"I think it would be inappropriate to start any other way than to say I'm sorry," he said. "I've said I'm sorry. I can't say I'm sorry enough. I made a big mistake in my life and I apologize once again to all of you."
The luncheon was Ensign's first public appearance in his home state since acknowledging in June that he had an extramarital affair with former campaign aide Cynthia Hampton.
Ensign resigned as head of the Republican Policy Committee after admitting to the affair with Hampton from December 2007 to August 2008. Hampton's husband, Doug, was Ensign's administrative assistant in his Washington, D.C., Senate office and the families were friends.
Ensign's attorney has also said that Ensign's parents paid the woman and her family $96,000 after learning about the affair.
Ensign once called on President Bill Clinton to resign after his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky erupted in 1998, declaring: "The truth must come out."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, government watchdog group, has called for investigations into Ensign by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Federal Elections Commission.
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said Ensign's distinction between his situation and that of Clinton was essentially an attempt to claim his affair was less contemptible.
"Isn't that a little like saying, 'It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is?,'" she said in a statement Wednesday. "One politician comparing his illicit affair to another's is a sure sign his career is in trouble."
Ensign told the AP on Wednesday that he can understand how some people might "have a problem" with the fact he called for Clinton's resignation but won't resign himself.
"But if you look at the times ... I was in the House of Representatives but basically was sitting in judgment of the president evaluating the case. I was basically a jurist at that point. I thought there was a violation of a felony," he said.
Ensign said in the interview he never considered resigning from the Senate and is focused on fulfilling his six-year term.
"What we're trying to do is go around to people in the state of Nevada and tell them how sorry I am for what I did. But now I need to focus on earning their trust back by working harder than I've ever worked for them," Ensign said. "There's no magic to hard work. It is literally focusing on what is important to Nevadans. Right now, the biggest issue Nevadans and the rest of the country face is health care."
Ensign spoke for about 30 minutes at the luncheon and answered a handful of questions submitted on cards. None were about the affair.
Later Wednesday he toured a U.S. Forest Service project at Lake Tahoe aimed at thinning forests to reduce fuel loads in an effort to reduce wildfire threats. On Thursday, he is scheduled to host the 12th annual Tahoe Environmental Summit that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore first hosted in 1997.