South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s mysterious disappearance from his state is the latest sign that Republican governors, once thought to be President Obama’s most credible adversaries, haven’t quite lived up to their billing.
From Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cringe-inducing nationally televised response to Obama’s first budget address to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s suggestion that his state might secede, GOP governors — including those said to be eyeing a potential 2012 presidential bid — haven’t exactly looked like the political grown-ups many party strategists had promised.
And none has had a rockier go of it than the party’s best-known governor, Alaska’s Sarah Palin. The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee has been dogged by ethics complaints and has engaged in public feuds with David Letterman and with Levi Johnston, the former fiance of Palin’s teenage daughter, Bristol, and the father of Bristol’s infant son.
Palin, whose vice presidential bid sparked a devoted grass-roots following across the country, has also angered GOP leaders in Washington for poor communication and for canceling appearances at party events and fundraisers.
But the latest high-profile fiasco involves Sanford, whose outspoken effort to refuse part of the federal stimulus money due his state has made him a darling of conservatives and fueled talk that he harbors presidential aspirations.
Sanford planned to return to work Wednesday after a six-day absence from South Carolina, during which time he reportedly took a secretive hike along the Appalachian Trail. While Sanford’s spokesman called the trip an opportunity for him to unwind after a stressful legislative session, the governor’s whereabouts were unknown to his wife and his security detail.
So odd was the absence that Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, another Republican, publicly complained about Sanford’s lack of communication.
The 49-year old Sanford has been a fierce critic of Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, even going to court to block $700 million South Carolina was to receive. He lost the court battle but boosted his national profile, making him a target of attack from national Democratic operatives — many of whom pounced on Sanford’s unusual walk in the woods.
"Being a chief executive means being on call all the time, and Gov. Sanford either doesn’t get that part of the job or can’t handle it," Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, scolded.
To be sure, not all politically ambitious GOP governors have seen their political fortunes stuck in the spring mud.
Mississippi’s Haley Barbour was heading out Wednesday for high-profile visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, states with key early presidential contests. Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty announced last month he would not seek re-election next year, clearing the way for an expected 2012 bid.
Florida’s Charlie Crist is running to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez next year and could well have a presidential bid in the future. And Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who won praise for pushing his party to diversify, was viewed as enough of a political threat to Obama in 2012 that the president appointed him to be ambassador to China.
Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a well-regarded political strategist before becoming Mississippi governor, has long insisted that GOP governors would lead the party’s efforts to rebuild. He reiterated that belief in an interview Tuesday, while acknowledging some of his colleagues’ recent public relations challenges.
"When Democrats have majorities in Washington, Republicans there can oppose bad things and propose good things, but can’t demonstrate that Republican ideas work," Barbour said. "The reason governors are so important is that they can take our ideas, implement them and show they can work."
In a sign that the political fortunes of Democratic governors may not be faring much better than their Republican counterparts, Barbour attended fundraisers this week for GOP gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.
In New Jersey, polls show former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie leading incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, while former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell is running a strong race against Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds to be the state’s first GOP governor in eight years.
Beth Fouhy covers politics for The Associated Press.