As much as the mavericks saw Mark Sanford as a Republican star of the future, was Wednesday's news conference his political swan song?
There's little doubt that Sanford's 2012 presidential ambitions are over. The question now is: Can he weather the storm, remain in office and effectively represent the state?
Those who've worked in previous gubernatorial administrations say the fallout from Sanford's bizarre Appalachian Trail hike-turned-Argentine tango will be significant, long-lasting and extended.
"He's damaged the government's part of this crisis," said Bob McAlister, former chief of staff to Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr.
A huge credibility gap — one Sanford allowed to linger for days — now exists throughout the administration. It will prompt every trooper, teacher, bureaucrat and voter to reassess anything Sanford says or does. It could affect a business sector leader's decisions to meet with him.
"Sanford is a lot of things, but I would never figure him for a Romeo," said Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, who follows Republican politics. "Now he's not even a lame duck — he's a dead duck. He's kind of a sad character."
By all accounts, Sanford broke a cardinal sin of leadership: allowing his staff to tell the press corps and the people of South Carolina a story he knew wasn't true, either making them part of the conspiracy or unwittingly making them part of a cover-up.
"He also took it upon himself to stop being governor" for a week while he was in Argentina, McAlister said. What's worse, Sanford will be seen as a hypocrite.
As a congressman, Sanford didn't hold back on House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston, R-La., after he admitted an affair in 1998. "The bottom line is Livingston lied," Sanford said at the time during an appearance on CNN. "He lied to his wife."
During former President Bill Clinton's scandal, Sanford chimed in, "I think it would be much better for the country and for him personally (to resign). ... I come from the business side. ... If you had a chairman or president in the business world facing these allegations, he'd be gone."
Sanford said he was comfortable with his vote backing impeachment articles, calling Clinton's behavior "reprehensible."
Sanford's name was expected to surface more often this summer during talk of possible GOP White House contenders, or even as a leader helping to reshape its message. Now, the story of Sanford's disappearance is helping shape jokes about the Palmetto State.
"I think it is fair to say his 2012 White House hopes are dead," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Americans will forgive a lot, as we have come to see. But what they won't forgive is an apparent dereliction of duty. Sanford was AWOL. If an emergency had happened, the governor could not have been reached. Staffers in the governor's office are no substitute for the elected head of government."
Sabato added, "There has been so much prevarication in this incident that I don't know how Sanford gets his credibility back. I believe he's headed for a nice long career in the private sector."
One big question will be how Sanford's confession affects the 2010 gubernatorial race. One of the Republican contenders, state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, took Sanford's picture down from her Web site. "Obviously, the governor has fallen far short ...," she said, "and that is extremely unfortunate."
One Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said his prayers are with Sanford's family, adding, "This is an unfortunate distraction for our state, and we cannot afford to lose sight of the problems that desperately need to be addressed in South Carolina."
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