South Carolina’s Sanford faces uncertain future

Gov. Mark Sanford admits to an affair at a news conference Wednesday at the state Capitol in Columbia.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s office is in damage-control mode Thursday, a day after the Republican governor tearfully admitted he’s been having an extramarital affair.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sanford was open about the relationship — confessing that he’d spent nearly the past week with a woman in Argentina, even though his staff said he was hiking along the Appalachian Trail — but he ignored those shouting, “Are you going resign” The Spartanburg Herald-Journal newspaper on Thursday called on Sanford to step aside, saying the governor can’t juggle this personal crisis and the economic downturn at the same time. Sanford, who had been rumored as a possible 2012 presidential contender, did step down from his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, but his spokesman said Sanford has no plans to resign from the governorship. In breaking the news of his affair, Sanford seemed aware that the worst could be yet to come. “We’ll let the chips fall as they may,” he told reporters. As reality begins to set in, former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said it’s too early to tell what’s next for Sanford. “I think politics is going to step aside for a few days. … The political piling on will happen later,” Dawson said. “Can he survive this I don’t know. I suspect he can, but I don’t know. The question is does he have the will that he wants to survive it.”

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The fallout from Sanford’s affair is likely to reverberate in three areas, CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley said. There’s the effect on his wife and four sons, the ramifications for his career and the impact on a Republican Party already struggling to rebuild. Fallout from such scandals, Crowley said, “is not one size fits all” but in this case, there’s “certainly serious damage not just to the governor but to the party as a whole.” Sex scandals don’t always close the door on a politician’s career. Former President Clinton, for example, was impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but by the time he left office in 2001, his approval ratings nearly matched his record high. “[Clinton] did a very good job as president, not such a good job as husband. So, I think voters can separate those two things,” said Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and Democratic strategist who was an adviser to Clinton. “But I think here’s the problem with Gov. Sanford. I don’t care, you know, who he’s ‘sparking,’ to use his phrase. I care a lot, though, about the hypocrisy,” he said, charging that Republicans have persisted in “this myth of moral superiority.” “I hope, if we learn anything from the party of Sanford and [Nevada Sen. John] Ensign and [former Idaho Sen.] Larry Craig and [former Rep.] Mark Foley [of Florida], it is, no party has a monopoly on virtue,” he added, referring to other GOP sex scandals. Other political sex scandals » The problem with Sanford, Begala said, is that he’s been “incredibly judgmental about other people’s sex lives.” As examples, Begala cites Sanford’s opposition to same-sex marriages and civil unions, and his vote in the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton. At the time, Sanford said, “The issue of lying is probably the biggest harm, if you will, to the system of democratic government … because it undermines trust. And if you undermine trust in our system, you undermine everything.” Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos predicted this crisis will be the end of Sanford’s political career. Even among his own party, Sanford — who was once considered a possible vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain — has made a few political enemies. Earlier this month, the 49-year-old governor lost his fight to turn down $700 million in federal stimulus money for South Carolina. “He can’t survive. Republicans down there weren’t particularly fond of Mark Sanford anyway, much less Democrats,” Castellanos said. “But what happens in these kinds of situations often is that, for his own good, voters decide that he just does not need to serve,” noting that with a wife and children involved, the situation isn’t just about him. If Sanford’s wrongs are limited to his personal life, he could survive, Crowley said, but if he visited his mistress on the taxpayers’ dime, “that is a huge problem as far as his staying in office is concerned.”

Sanford visited Argentina in June 2008 as part of a state-funded trade mission, according to a copy of the trip itinerary that CNN obtained. It’s unknown whether he spent time with the Buenos Aires woman during that trip. “When you look at the whole host of people who have admitted to adulterous affairs, if you look at [New York] Gov. [Eliot] Spitzer, he in fact, engaged with a prostitute. … If you look at former New Jersey Gov. [Jim] McGreevey, he also — he put a lover on the state payroll. … Others have survived when it is quote ‘merely an affair,’ ” Crowley said.