Another GOP Star Fades After Infidelity

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford had been on the short list of potential candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. He is the second Republican in as many weeks who's political future has been hurt by an extra-marital scandal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Mark Sanford is the second Republican in as many weeks to admit to an extramarital affair. It's a personal and political disaster for the governor, and it's the last thing his party needs as it tries to find an alternative to President Obama.

Let's get some analysis now from Ken Rudin. He's NPR political editor. He writes the daily Political Junkie blog. And he joins us now. Good morning, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Rene.

MONTAGNE: So we've just heard some thoughts on whether people will forgive Governor Sanford. What do you think? Coming out, making a public confession -is there any sympathy for him personally?

RUDIN: Well, it seems to be. I mean, if you looked at his face at yesterday's press conference, which was so tragic, but if you have read the emails between himself and his girlfriend from Argentina, there was this just sense of love and passion, but at the same time some people say that he got what he deserved. He betrayed his family. He lied to his staff. He lied to his state. There was a lot of confusion about what to do when he was missing.

And so I think there's a combination - I mean, he didn't wag his finger at the cameras as some politicians when they're caught in an affair have done. He didn't lie about it. But at the same time, sympathy may not be the right word. I think there's just this terrible sense of sadness about the whole thing.

MONTAGNE: And on a political level, are his presidential aspirations finished at this point?

RUDIN: Well, you know, you can go through a scandal like this and survive politically. I think Bill Clinton is a perfect example - there was Monica, there was Paula, there was Jennifer. And yet at the end of the day voters said they didn't care. Perhaps had he been able to run for a third term in 2000, some say that Bill Clinton would have won.

But Mark Sanford is in a different position. He's a Republican. He's a conservative Republican. And the Republican Party is a conservative party. It preaches family values. But of course there's a sense of hypocrisy that a lot of Republicans who have criticized Bill Clinton and people like him have violated their own marriages, their own sense of ethics.

Plus the fact that he's from South Carolina, Mark Sanford. It's an early presidential primary state. The evangelical vote is very, very strong. He's had problems. Mark Sanford has had problems with his own Republican Party.

They didn't like the fact that he turned down the stimulus money. Now, I promise this will be the last time I mention Sanford and stimulus in the same sentence, but the point is, is that Mark Sanford had a lot of problems going into a potential presidential campaign, especially coming from South Carolina.

MONTAGNE: Although it must be said - rough weeks for Republicans, but neither party is purer than the other when it comes to these kinds of scandals.

RUDIN: No. That's absolutely true. I mean, two weeks ago we saw the spectacle of John Ensign, the senator from Nevada. He's the number four in the Republican leadership. He also confessed to an extramarital affair. And then there was Mark Foley and there was Larry Craig and things like that.

But for all the Republicans I mentioned, there's also Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic former governor of New York. He prosecuted corruption, Wall Street fraud and prostitution and yet was involved in a prostitution ring. Jim McGreevey, the governor in New Jersey, who was forced to resign after he wound up in a tawdry affair.

And John Edwards, who was having an affair as he was campaigning for president, as his wife is suffering from inoperable breast cancer. So both Democrats and Republicans do this. I guess it's an equal opportunity scandal.

MONTAGNE: Ken, with Republicans in Congress not doing too well lately, some in the party were looking to GOP governors like Mark Sanford to lead them back to the White House. But some of them have had a difficult time since Mr. Obama was elected president, those governors.

RUDIN: That's absolutely true. I mean at the top of the list would be Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president in 2008. She was thought to be a rising star in the party, certainly for 2012. But she also has ethics woes back home. She's having fights with the Republican state legislature, and then she got into these public feuds about Levi Johnston, her daughter's former fiancé, a feud with David Letterman - I think it's kind of hurt her.

Bobby Jindal, the governor from Louisiana, thought to be a rising star, and yet his big moment on the national stage came a few months ago when he gave the response to President Obama's budget address, and they thought he was just not ready for primetime.

MONTAGNE: So how would you assess the Republican presidential field at this early juncture?

RUDIN: Well, it absolutely is early. I mean, if you go four years ago at this time, the thought was Barack Obama wasn't even ready yet and John McCain was finished. So that shows how much we knew. Both of them were nominated for president in 2008.

But having said that and given the fact that there's so much time to go, there are still some bright lights for the Republican Party. Mitt Romney is drawing very good crowds, good ratings, raising a lot of money for the party, the former governor of Massachusetts.

There's also Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota who announced that he's not going to run for a third term. He's thought to be a good chance for the nomination. Haley Barbour this week, the governor of Mississippi, may be campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Look, it's a long way to go, but to count the Republican Party out this early in the cycle would be premature.

MONTAGNE: Ken, thanks.

RUDIN: Thanks so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. You can read his Political Junkie blog at npr.org/junkie.

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