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The Sanford affair: a day-by-day account

South Carolina’s Houdini governor had often given security the slip. But his audacious Argentine tryst was unwittingly foiled by a fellow Republican.

By Staff writer / June 29, 2009

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford listens to Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom during the budget and control board meeting Monday, in Columbia, S.C.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

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Atlanta

From his very first day as South Carolina’s governor-elect in 2002, Mark Sanford made an art of slipping away unnoticed.

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Known as much for his loner habits as his mile-wide independent streak, Governor Sanford has insisted on driving his own car, often leaving behind his security detail to jog across the muggy capital or head for a private retreat.

South Carolina does not have an official state protocol for protecting the governor, but there’s an unspoken code that governors work with security personnel – a code Sanford has become adept at cracking, time and again.

Now, a week after the media first became aware of Sanford’s absence, it is becoming clear that Sanford’s rendezvous with his Argentine lover was a gubernatorial escape of unusual daring – even by his Houdini standards.

The disappearance: June 18-22

The first sign that the governor was again attempting a disappearing act came on June 18, when he – or someone – disabled the tracking device on the black state-owned SUV he was taking in the direction of the airport.

As far as his staff, security detail, and family apparently knew, he was off for a weekend of solitude on the Appalachian Trail. In truth, Sanford was crying in Argentina, anguished over his feelings for Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentine TV anchor whom he had met eight years earlier.

He had come to visit her over the Father’s Day weekend – against his wife’s explicit wishes – and spent much of the time contemplating the future of his family, he told the press last week.

But for state Sen. Jake Knotts, a fellow Republican who was worried about the governor’s safety, Sanford might have kept the trip – and the affair – quiet.

The search: June 22-24

Senator Knotts alerted the media of the governor’s absence Monday, four days after he disappeared.

It wasn’t until the next day that Sanford’s staff finally reached the governor. He said he was taken aback by the furor over his absence. But confusion had been mounting. According to a cellphone ping, the governor’s last known whereabouts had been Atlanta – at least 80 miles from Springer Mountain, the head of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia.

On Wednesday, a reporter from the main South Carolina newspaper, The State, located Sanford at Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson Airport. The governor’s obvious obfuscations turned the tale of a wandering Southern governor into a national mystery.

The confession: June 24

That afternoon, after quoting Scripture and talking about his love of the outdoors, the governor broke the shocking news: He had been having an affair. It had lasted at least 12 months. His wife had known for five of them.

The dates he gave coincided with a taxpayer-funded business trip to Argentina in June 2008. The itinerary left ample personal time. He has since promised to pay the state $8,000 for trips that included visits to his paramour.

Sanford’s wife, Jenny, was stunned that her husband broke his promise not to go to Argentina. “He was told in no uncertain terms not to see her,” she told the Associated Press.

Jenny’s statements put new emphasis on a batch of e-mails The State had received on Dec. 30 and purportedly had been written by Sanford. The rambling, personal, romantic, and often angst-ridden e-mails, previously unsubstantiated, now explained the inner turmoil of one of the GOP’s rising stars.

In private, he was writing love letters to a faraway mistress. In public, he was fighting his own party over the state budget and the White House over its stimulus package, which he did not want to take, saying it had too many strings attached. Eventually, the state Supreme Court forced him to take the money.

The fallout: June 24-29

Sanford’s apparently heartfelt apologies during the past week have brought him some sympathy. Many state leaders and even critics have come out in support of the governor, saying personal missteps have little to do with his ability to run the state.

At the same time, he is facing a backlash within his own party. Some Republican county chairs – the core of much of Sanford’s political power – are planning a rally for later this week to demand his resignation. Ironically, Knotts, the senator who had acted out of concern for his governor's well-being, is now asking for Sanford to step down, too.

But some county GOP chairs have declined to attend the rally, saying the story is a classic case of the biblical precept: Let he who is without sin first cast a stone.

The rift has given Democrats hope that they could make a serious run for the governorship of this deeply conservative state in 18 months’ time. According to one poll by InsiderAdvantage, 50 percent of South Carolinians want him to resign.