After a political mystery — "Where in the World is South Carolina's Governor?" — Mark Sanford's aides said he was stunned by all the fuss over his five-day absence and would cut short a secretive hike along the Appalachian Trail.
State officials and even his wife said they had no idea where he went over Father's Day weekend, and not everyone is buying his explanation. His disappearance has left some in the Palmetto State wondering: Is this any way for a governor to act?
Sanford's spokesman said the governor was hiking to clear his head after the legislative session, during which he lost a key battle.
But critics of the two-term Republican — and there are many — wondered why it took nine hours after reporters started asking questions for the governor's staff to say what the state's chief executive was doing. Sanford was expected back in his office Wednesday, but his aides stopped answering questions about his trip, including where he was on the 2,175-mile trail, whether he was with security and if anyone else could confirm his whereabouts.
"If you're not skeptical, then you have to think the governor's office is in complete chaos," said Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
Could squelch 2012 bid
The episode could squelch talk of a 2012 presidential bid that only grew after months spent building credibility with conservatives as he battled legislators over taking the state's share of $787 billion in federal stimulus cash.
"If he were thinking of a presidential run, this is all the more puzzling," said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist. "Any opponent would try to capitalize on this and easily could do so."
Rumblings about Sanford's mysterious departure began Monday, three weeks after he failed to block federal bailout money for South Carolina schools. A court order June 4 forced him to take the $700 million.
Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts started asking questions about a rumor that Sanford had disappeared in a state law enforcement vehicle.
His wife, Jenny, told The Associated Press on Monday that he needed time away from his four sons to write something. For hours, his staff would only say he was vacationing. It wasn't until 10 p.m. Monday that they allowed he was hiking.
Jenny Sanford drove past three reporters outside the family's beach house Tuesday and said only: "Leave us to our privacy."
Fowler said she was surprised to learn Sanford's office said he was hiking "since this whole thing was he wanted to get away from the kids to write things. Strolling down the trail writing?"
Doesn't believe it
Knotts, a frequent critic, said he accepts Sanford's story but doesn't believe it.
"That's his story," Knotts said. "If it's true, it's true."
Sanford, a trim, 49-year-old former real estate investor and Air Force reservist, is typically drained at the end of a legislative session, former aides said. State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and Sanford's former chief of staff, said he visited with Sanford last Wednesday and could tell the governor was ready for a break.
"It's not unusual to take off and kind of be by himself," Davis said. "It's part of what makes him him."
Another former chief of staff also wasn't surprised to learn about Sanford's disappearing act.
"Mark Sanford is an original," Fred Carter said. "He will never conform to your expectations or mine. And that's the beauty and the tragedy of this administration."
The governor has long been known as a loner — bucking GOP leadership during three U.S. House terms and casting the only dissenting vote on Medicaid coverage for some breast and cervical cancer treatment. He clashes often with the Republicans who control both chambers of his state Legislature, once famously carrying two piglets to the door of the House in opposition to what he said was pork-barrel spending.
But past vacations never left Sanford completely out of touch, said Chris Drummond, Sanford's former spokesman. At worst, Sanford would call in daily or would respond to voice mails.
Who was in charge?
This time, Sanford had been untethered from staff since Thursday, apparently out of state. The Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states, but not South Carolina.
How his office handled it was a problem, said Rozell, the political scientist.
"The citizens who elected him have the right to know that someone there is in charge of the executive branch," Rozell said.
Who was in charge became the political and practical question.
Essentially, Sanford's staffers said they'd decide who to call if an emergency popped up and the governor couldn't be reached. The state's constitution says as a temporary absence would give the lieutenant governor full authority in the state. But the temporary absence has never been defined.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican, says the state's law needs to be clarified. He said state residents want important decisions to be made by elected leaders who take oaths.
"In an emergency," he said, "it should be those people who consult with staff to make a decision and not the other way around."
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