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South Carolina's governor once cited "moral legitimacy" when he was a congressman voting for President Bill Clinton's impeachment. He became a darling of fiscal conservatives over his ideological opposition to federal stimulus cash.
Now Mark Sanford has taken a swan dive from the moral high ground.
By admitting to an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina on Wednesday, the Republican governor makes the already-difficult end of his term-limited administration nearly untenable.
He has alienated leaders of his GOP-dominated state Legislature for years, but said recently he was finding comfort outside the Statehouse as a champion for smaller government and lower taxes.
He was raising his national political profile with his outspoken fight against using federal cash for anything but paying down debt. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he was raising money for candidates and deflecting talk he was planning to run for president in 2012.
The speed of his collapse was shocking.
About three weeks ago, he lost a court battle to reject the federal stimulus money. A few days later, he and his wife, Jenny Sanford, began a "trial separation" with hopes of reconciling.
Then on Monday, lawmakers and reporters started questioning where the governor had been for five days. His aides said the outdoorsman was hiking the Appalachian Trail to wind down from a grueling legislative session.
But on Wednesday the governor held a rambling, tearful news conference in which he finally revealed the truth: "I've been unfaithful to my wife." His family did not attend.
The 49-year-old ruminated on God's law, moral absolutes and following one's heart. He said he spent the last five days "crying in Argentina."
Sanford described the woman who lives in Argentina as a "dear, dear friend" whom he has known for about eight years and been romantically involved with for about a year. He said he has seen her three times since the affair began, and his wife found out about it five months ago.
Sanford denied instructing his staff to cover up his affair, but acknowledged that he told them he thought he would be hiking on the Appalachian Trail and never corrected that impression after leaving for South America.
"I let them down by creating a fiction with regard to where I was going," Sanford said. "I said that was the original possibility. Again, this is my fault in ... shrouding this larger trip."
The State newspaper in Columbia published steamy e-mails between Sanford and the woman. Sanford did not identify her, nor did he answer directly whether the relationship with the Argentinian woman was over.
"What I did was wrong. Period," he said.
Now the people of South Carolina and national GOP leaders are picking up the pieces.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour took over leadership of the Republican Governors Association after Stanford resigned from the post. In little more than an hour after his announcement, other Republicans were backing away from him: the Value Voters Summit dropped him from the lineup for its September roundup of GOP notables.
At least one South Carolina legislator wants Sanford to resign without serving the remaining 18 months of his term, which the governor said he has "no plans" to do.
Political experts expect little from his last 18 months in office, and certainly not with the Legislature he's fought with for years. A lame duck session looms for Sanford, even after a session in which he lost his battle over accepting federal stimulus money.
"Truth be told, over the past few years, he has soured his relationship with the Legislature so much that he hasn't been particularly effective at getting an agenda through," said Scott Huffmon, political scientist at Winthrop University. "And with the stimulus fight, pushing it all the way to the state Supreme Court, that affirmed the governor's subordinate position in this state."
Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political scientist, said after "something like this, it's going to require a lot of humility on his part in dealing with legislators."
For now, Sanford's looking at the basics.
"Over the time that I have left in office, I'm going to devote my energy to building back the trust the people of this state have placed in me," Sanford said.
It will be a tall task. While some South Carolinians said they appreciated Sanford's eventual candor in admitting to his affair, the tawdry news surprised many.
"I was shocked, shocked," said Tom Daly, 42, a magazine editor in Charleston. "First of all he's a Republican golden boy and he's a strict, staunch conservative. I'm so shocked. It was something I did not expect."
Ellen Brady, a computer network specialist from Charleston, wondered why it had to happen in her state.
"We're all mortified, absolutely mortified," she said. "It's splashed all over the news."
This program aired on June 25, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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