Mark Sanford's affair may have played out in his heart, but it cost him his right arm.

The governor's admission of a long-term love interest with an Argentine woman means that first lady Jenny Sanford may no longer stand by his side, or in his inner circle.

For years, it was widely understood that she was his sounding board. Now, as she said Thursday, his political career is not her concern.

That's a far cry from the path the two took into politics. Fifteen years ago, when private citizen and political unknown Mark Sanford announced plans to run for the Charleston area's seat in Congress, few gave him much of a chance.

That was until he won the Republican Party nomination and then went on to serve three terms in Washington.

He was young, tanned and had successfully latched on to the outsider-reformer message. But she was smart and politically keen, managing that race and taking lead roles in every one of his races since, including two runs for governor.

"If you could picture the perfect husband-and-wife political team, that was them," said Nancy Aust Strickland, who was with the Sanfords during the congressional races.

The partnership changed noticeably in the past few months as the ice began to grow under an ill wind from South America.

"The only thing I did notice is that I did not see her," said former Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Cyndi Mosteller, who said Jenny Sanford was a no-show at various events this spring that she normally might have attended.

For most South Carolinians, Jenny Sanford remains beyond their touch, even after living the past six years in Columbia. She never sought the spotlight, and her immediate future is as uncertain as her husband's.

Their separation leaves many questions remaining: Will she ever return to the Governor's Mansion, give input or even resume some of the more public duties as first lady?

What's more, will the marriage ever be repaired to the point that the pair may one day become a political team again?

Jenny Sanford hails from Chicago and came into the world under a pedigree that spoke of toughness. Her grandfather, Bolton Sullivan, founded the Skil Corp., makers of the first portable electric saw.

She is the second of five children. For schooling, she went to Georgetown University and worked for a short time for the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee on Capitol Hill. Her boss way up the chain was U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the bulldog Illinois Democrat.

She graduated college magna cum laude in 1984 with a degree in finance and headed to New York and Wall Street. She stayed at her first job for seven years and was promoted to vice president in mergers and acquisitions with a focus on media and communications companies.

In 1987, she met Sanford, who was working that summer at Goldman Sachs, at a beach party in the Hamptons on Long Island.

"It wasn't exactly love at first sight," she told The Post and Courier in 2003. "It was more like friendship at first sight." The couple married in 1989.

Early on in Sanford's political career it was clear that they worked as a partnership. "The real beauty about my and Mark's relationship is that I manage the basics, while Mark comes up with the new, bold ideas," she told The Post and Courier in 2003.

"My role has been to ask him what our message is and to get that message out to the public. I do the research regarding tax policies and education plans. I then research what other states are doing in these areas and compare and contrast, just like in the merger business."

Examples of how her role as adviser continued after Sanford became governor included joining the governor's office job-transition team. She also sat in on several meetings with the Santee Cooper utility directors and the governor's staff, and helped screen a number of investment banks bidding to do a study on the Moncks Corner-based utility.

Because of her visibility, detractors compared her to Hillary Clinton, while other critics focused on her perceived coldness. Other faults some have cited are that neither Sanford appears to have reached out to any of their predecessors for advice or inclusion.

Once Mark Sanford was safely elected into a second term, Jenny Sanford seemed to back away some from the grind and become more content as First Mom.

Rumors that the Sanford marriage was in trouble began circulating this year. Some insiders thought it impossible, in part because of the family persona Mark Sanford had broadcast.

The closing comments for many of his speeches ended with him pointing to his four boys, saying that the sometimes unpopular stances he took politically was to give them a better future.

Nationally, Jenny Sanford's response to her husband's infidelity has been evaluated from all angles by talking heads, counselors and therapists trying to analyze the Sanford marriage. Several gave her points for not being at the Wednesday news conference-confession, though it is unknown if she was asked.

Typical of that analysis are the comments of Bonnie Russell, a California publicist who runs a national Web site dealing with family court issues.

Jenny Sanford is a breath of fresh air for women, she said, since all too often the wives of philandering politicians are forced to stand by their husband's side, gazing adoringly in humiliation as their husbands trot out the details of their disgrace.

"That is just telling men that it's OK to do anything they want," she said. "Jenny Sanford is not doing that. She is really leading the way for other women. She's standing for herself and holding her ground. It's just so refreshing."

Jenny Sanford said Friday that she planned to take the boys and leave the state for a while. But before she left, she let on that Mark Sanford's political career was of little interest to her.

That could change. Friends say if the marriage is ever repaired, Mark Sanford's career may not be as dead as pundits have said.

"I would never underestimate the brilliance and grace of Jenny Sanford," Strickland said. If any politician could rise from the cold, she said, "it would be someone with Jenny Sanford by his side."