COLUMBIA -- Since Gov. Mark Sanford's bombshell sex scandal confession June 24 that sent his political career into a crash landing, his every move is scrutinized, impeachment hearings could be pending and critics wonder aloud why Sanford dared take so much time off work recently and who is in charge.

Sanford has tried to assure everyone that he's got it all in hand -- healing his family while watching over an ailing state pummeled by the recession.

The governor characterizes himself as an active and engaged chief executive and maintains he is running the state.

But in the past two months, Sanford has been out of state for 25 days, more than half of which was spent in Europe trying to reconcile with his wife and children.

That's fine to those who view the time off as coming during the dog days of summer, a time Sanford could spend best as a father and a husband first.

For others, the time away while the state is suffering doesn't sit well, especially as more than 11 percent of workers in South Carolina can't find jobs.

To be sure, Sanford is in lame-duck territory, no different than any term-limited politician at the end of his tenure. Sanford, a Republican, has a little more than 16 months remaining in office, and his recent troubles only make it harder for him to make the policy and taxation changes he seeks.

But Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat who has called for Sanford to resign, said for the governor to prove that he should remain in office is "looking rather daunting."

Rutherford said it will take only one House member to introduce an impeachment resolution. If five members object to taking it up right away, it would be sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. Rutherford, one of the 25 legislators on that committee, said he is all but certain the committee would consider calling on the full House to proceed with impeachment.

Rutherford said that he is not out for a witch hunt but that more is in doubt as new facts are revealed. Rutherford said Sanford spent his whole tenure lecturing about transparency in government, yet the governor has not decided whether to raise the veil of secrecy on a possible ethics investigation into his actions.

"He has reached the height of hypocrisy, or I thought he had, and he keeps going higher," Rutherford said.

Vacation time

Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University, said Sanford's time off work with his family leaves the public with the impression that he is making every effort to reconcile with his wife and sons after confessing to an affair with an Argentine woman.

But Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said the time spent out of state can only look like Sanford isn't trying to hold on to the reins of the state that many think he is losing.

Don Fowler of Columbia, President Bill Clinton's pick to lead the Democratic National Committee in the mid-90s, said Sanford always has had a narrow view on the functions of government.

"In keeping with that philosophy, him being gone so much of the time is not as big of a deal; but if you look at the needs of the people -- education, economic development, employment, the health of the people -- it is a woeful disregard," Fowler said. "I've been watching governors in South Carolina since the 1960s and even before, and no governor has ever treated the job with such a cavalier attitude."

Others, among them Republican Sen. John Courson and Philip Grose, a staffer for Democratic Govs. Robert McNair and John West, think Sanford still has plenty of time to be successful.

And Ben Fox, Sanford's communication director, said the governor is fully capable of performing both of his main tasks at the same time. He's wholly engaged and committed to his family and moving the state forward, Fox said. To say because Sanford is not sitting at a desk means he is off work "is misguided," Fox said.

Since the sex scandal broke, the governor has held two Open Door After 4 sessions to meet directly with voters, appeared at public functions several times -- such as a speech Wednesday at the Summerville Rotary Club -- reached out to legislative leaders to talk about opportunities to collaborate and combine efforts and discussed job creation and economic development with business leaders and others.

What's more, Fox said, the summer is traditionally the slow period compared with the hectic January-to-June pace of the legislative session. Governors traditionally take vacations this time of year. Now, Fox said, Sanford is ready to prepare for hurricane season, begin his work on an executive budget and push his legislative priorities.

Recently, Sanford said he is hopeful for the next session and his ability to sell his ideas to legislators. Sanford said that in the past some legislators generally agreed with his ideas on restructuring government or redesigning South Carolina's tax structure. But, he said, because of personal and political reasons, they wouldn't vote for the changes because they didn't want to give him a victory. Now, with a clear end in sight for his political career, Sanford said that shouldn't be an issue.

Both Courson and Grose said Sanford has an opportunity to be successful by building consensus on issues and bringing people to the table.

Thigpen said it's time for Sanford to move from the defensive to the offensive. The governor needs a brisk legislative agenda and he needs to go after it, Thigpen said. "Sanford is in the position he's in now, but unless something horrendous comes out, then things probably can't get a lot worse."

Impeachment talk

But things could get worse. Murmurs among legislators about possible impeachment turned to open discussion in the last several days.

Rep. James Smith, an outspoken Columbia Democrat who often is called on to rally votes, said the issues that have been raised since Sanford admitted to his affair, especially alleged misuse of state airplanes, have many House members talking to each other about a bipartisan impeachment effort, Smith said. He also is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

No action could be taken until the Legislature reconvenes in January unless unusual measures are taken to call lawmakers back early.

The thinking for many legislators is that the months before the session starts will give the State Ethics Commission time to conduct an investigation. Ethics probes are secretive undertakings until the results are finalized, or the subject of the investigation waives his right to confidentiality.

Any real determination about whether an impeachment is likely depends mainly on the results of an ethics investigation. But impeachment also could be based on subjective criteria when it comes to "serious misconduct in office."

Senators, for the most part, have kept a low profile on the whole subject since Senate leader Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican, urged caution in the event that the upper chamber would be called on to serve as jury in an impeachment.

Who is in charge?

Sanford's legacy depends on him focusing his attention on his job and grabbing that rudder with a firm hand for the remainder of his time in office, Winthrop's Huffmon said.

Just how much control Sanford might be able to exert is limited because South Carolina's governor is not empowered by law with a lot of authority, Thigpen, of Francis Marion University, said. Compared with the power many other state governors have, Sanford is near the bottom because South Carolina is a legislatively controlled state, he said.

Still, the situation is exacerbated by the governor's circumstances and his historically rocky relationship with the Legislature, where he has a reputation as uncompromising. The relationship has been marked by lively battles fought very publicly. Sanford has routinely vetoed many legislative actions, especially spending measures, and the Legislature has routinely voted to override those vetoers.

"It's almost like we had a leaderless government with the lack of rapport between the Legislature and the chief executive officer," Thigpen said. "For seven years, we've got trench warfare."

Fowler, the Democratic leader, said that even though South Carolina's chief executive is, by design, one of the weakest in the country, the state has seen progress under active and assertive governors. He pointed toward the legacies of Democrats and Republicans, among them Fritz Hollings and Carroll Campbell.

Despite the criticism and his own mistakes, Sanford has no plans to resign. He said he thinks he can be a success in his remaining months and is moving on.

"I'm going to be busy being governor until I'm told otherwise."

Reach Yvonne Wenger at ywenger@postandcourier.com or 803-799-9051.