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Another GOP bombshell

Mark Sanford’s extramarital excursion to Latin America is just the latest -- albeit the most lurid -- in a series of setbacks that have plagued Republicans as they struggle to recast the party and promote a new generation of national leaders.

Over the last few months, several of the GOP’s most touted presidential prospects have fallen away, leaving Republicans increasingly adrift at a time when voter surveys show the party in possibly the worst shape since the troubled days of Watergate.

Even more unfortunate for the GOP, the latest embarrassing revelations involved personal morality. In just over a week, sex scandals have sidelined two of the candidates mentioned in the run-up to 2012: Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and, now, South Carolina Gov. Sanford, who owned up Wednesday to an affair with “a dear, dear friend from Argentina.”

“This is a very disturbing trend that some of their leaders can’t abide by some of the values they as a party used to esteem, or should esteem,” said David Woodard, a Republican consultant and political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University. He said the political fallout could be particularly severe in the South, the most important bastion of the shrinking GOP.

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“As other Republicans come up for consideration, this is certainly one of the first things they’ll have to address,” Woodard said. “Voters will be looking at their private lives much more than before.”

One of the oddest political episodes in memory -- the case of the missing governor -- ended Wednesday in a nationally televised news conference that played like a daytime soap opera. A tearful and rambling Sanford, absent his wife and four sons, confessed his infidelity and admitted to a whirlwind trip to Buenos Aires to secretly meet his lover.

He led staff members to believe he was alone over Father’s Day weekend, clearing his head by hiking the Appalachian Trail, and that is the story they made public.

Sanford, 49, is conservative on social issues, but his niche has been in the business and economic wing of the party. He has been extravagant in his personal parsimony -- Sanford slept in his office while in Congress, to avoid paying rent -- and built up a national reputation in recent months by refusing to accept the federal money provided to South Carolina in President Obama’s economic stimulus package. (He finally backed down, but only after losing a court fight.)

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As of Wednesday, however, Sanford’s political career appeared to be over, with nothing left beyond his remaining time in office. He said he would resign as head of the Republican Governors’ Assn., surrendering a national platform and following the example of Ensign, who last week quit his leadership post in Congress after admitting an affair with a former staffer. On Wednesday, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, alleging that Ensign broke Senate rules by failing to properly report a severance payment to the woman.

Sex scandals are nothing new in politics and hardly confined to one party. Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards confessed last year to an extramarital affair, and President Clinton was impeached for lying about his sexual dalliance with a White House intern. But Republicans invite greater retribution, given the GOP’s claim to being the party of personal responsibility and homespun values. “That sort of sets them up for a harder fall,” Woodard said.

Still, some cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from the back-to-back sex scandals, or attempting to score partisan points as a result of any personal missteps.

“There is plenty of human frailty to go around when it comes to this kind of story,” said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a GOP pollster who specializes in Southern politics.

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“I don’t think it will hurt Republicans any more than Eliot Spitzer hurt Democrats,” Ayres added, referring to New York’s former governor, who resigned last year after consorting with a high-priced call girl.

“Is it an embarrassment for Republicans? Yes it is,” said Charlie Cook, an independent analyst and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But in the scheme of things, what’s going on with the economy, what’s going on with the deficit, what’s going on with healthcare and climate change is going to be much more important.”

That said, a political party is more than a set of policy positions. Its flesh and blood is its leadership, and Republicans have yet to find anyone who can stand up to President Obama on a national stage and win broad favor.

One of the first to try, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, delivered a widely panned response to Obama’s State of the Union address, ending serious talk of a White House bid. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party’s leaders in Congress, have had some success fighting Obama on Capitol Hill. But neither appears to be presidential material, nor have they expressed interest in running.

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Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has emerged as one of the party’s most intriguing figures: a relatively centrist Mormon from deeply conservative Utah. But he appears to have taken himself out of the 2012 race by accepting Obama’s offer to become ambassador to China.

That leaves several familiar faces. Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who ran in 2008, are each believed to be eyeing another try. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is also considered a possible presidential contender, though she’s done little to enhance her standing in the party since her rocky run for vice president last year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also mentioned as a prospect, but he has own history of marital infidelity.

Perhaps the most promising newcomer on the Republican side is Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who recently announced he would not seek a third term, presumably to pursue a presidential bid in 2012.

Of course, much can change between now and the next presidential election, as evidenced by recent events.

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“It’s hard to predict what might happen three years from now,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and South Carolina native. “But if Republicans have another six months like the last six months, they’re going to be in real deep trouble.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com


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