COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gov. Mark Sanford's bombshell admission of an affair with an Argentine woman has touched off a delicate political dance among fellow South Carolina Republicans vying to replace him when his term ends.
The most awkward shuffle is being done by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer _ Sanford's second-in-command but not his ally _ who would get a free 18-month audition for the post were Sanford to resign.
The scandal has crippled Sanford's political career, and state law would have prevented him from running for a third consecutive term anyway. A pressing question is whether he would have already stepped down if not for behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the people who want his job.
Sanford told The Associated Press on Sunday he considered resigning but didn't. He admitted last week to a yearlong affair with an Argentine woman, a confession that came after a trip to that country to see her that kept him out of touch with his family and staff, who had told the public he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
"To be human is to on occasion, fall flat on your face," Sanford told reporters Monday after a budget meeting at which he apologized, yet again. He had bags under his eyes. "I've done it in the most public of circles. The question is, what do I learn from it and what do others learn from it?"
Bauer, who said before the scandal that he would probably run in 2010, has not joined calls for Sanford to resign. He said Monday he is considering taking himself out of the race if it turns out that's the only thing keeping Sanford in office.
"The conversation now is more about Andre Bauer than the governor," Bauer said. "This really shouldn't be the debate. The debate should be, 'Is Mark Sanford in his heart of hearts comfortable in serving out his term?' This is a dark cloud over South Carolina. We need to move swiftly and move forward."
Rod Shealy, a longtime Bauer friend and adviser, said he believes the political interests of Bauer's potential opponents are "what's stopping the resignation that everyone has expected."
The other candidates, including a representative for Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is expected to run, insist that's not the case.
"There's no truth to it, from McMaster's point of view," said political consultant Richard Quinn. "He wouldn't allow politics to be mixed with his work as attorney general."
State Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, a Sanford ally who plans to run for his job in 2010, said she wants the governor to stay because she is worried Bauer won't continue efforts to bring accountability to government. She insists her concern is not about her own race.
Bauer "has more often stood on the side of what used to be rather than what should be," Haley said. "It is the larger movement of where we're trying to go, that's what's been damaged this week, and I'm very concerned."
Bauer critics contend he's the one working behind the scenes _ to oust Sanford.
Sen. Jake Knotts, a longtime Sanford opponent and Bauer friend who brought to light that Sanford was missing, has called for law enforcement to investigate Sanford's disappearance and possible use of public money to see his mistress. The governor has admitted he asked Commerce to extend the itinerary of an economic development trip last year to include Argentina.
In an e-mail obtained by The New York Times, a political consultant for Bauer asked another national consultant for help getting Sanford out of office. Consultant Chris LaCivita, the e-mail's author, told the paper those efforts were separate from Bauer's work as lieutenant governor. And Bauer said LaCivita, who's been a paid consultant for six months, sent the e-mail on his own.
Bauer and Sanford are not friends and have clashed for years. In South Carolina, governors and lieutenant governors run on different tickets, and in 2006, first lady Jenny Sanford threw her support behind Bauer's rival in a GOP primary runoff.
Bauer managed a come-from-behind primary runoff victory just weeks after surviving the fiery crash of a single-engine plane he was piloting. He hobbled along the campaign trail on crutches _ including a 3.5-mile trek across a bridge from Mount Pleasant to Charleston _ and waved to voters on roadsides statewide in 100-degree weather.
"Anybody who underestimates Andre Bauer does so to his own detriment," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "None of the other candidates want to see Andre Bauer have a year and a half auditioning as governor."
Democrats planning to run _ including state Sens. Vincent Sheheen and Robert Ford _ have been mostly quiet about Sanford's affair. Sheheen issued a statement asking people to respect the Sanford family's privacy and saying he's praying for Jenny Sanford.