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Mr. Sanford rose to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association and waged the nation’s most visible fights against federal stimulus spending. Both sparked talk of a potential 2012 White House run.

“The mishap of June of 2009 just derailed him completely. That cost him the RGA chairmanship and that just shattered his trajectory upward,” Mr. Rainey said recently. “But I don’t think it’s over.”

Mr. Sanford remains well-regarded in conservative circles. In 2006, he was calling for Republicans to get back to their conservative roots. Only a couple of years earlier, he carried piglets dubbed “pork” and “barrel” to the door of the state’s GOP-controlled House to protest spending. His persistent warnings about rising deficits and railing against federal mandates fed what would become tea party mantras.

“Clearly, Mark has a future. Equally clearly, I don’t know where. A man like that with his talents - and he has talents whether you agree with his political philosophies or not - he’s still capable and good and bright,” Mr. Rainey said, noting former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s far more sordid downfall and current job as a cable news talk show co-host.

During a recent speech to a Rotary Club on the coast, a satisfied Mr. Sanford told a crowd his final year in office was his best: More budget vetoes were sustained and he won long fights to restructure the state’s money-losing employment agency and overhaul sentencing laws.

And Nikki Haley, the legislator he mentored and encouraged, publicly praised him as she clinched the GOP nomination for governor in June. She talked about Mr. Sanford’s fights on behalf of taxpayers “and his encouragement for me in this campaign. You know, when we talked a year ago, I said, ‘Governor. do you think South Carolina is ready for a female governor?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know about that, but they’re ready for you.’ “

Mr. Sanford said he’ll remain “engaged in the larger war of ideas or the process of politics” at least through writing and possibly working with a conservative think tank. He expects to return to business.

A return to politics isn’t planned, he said, “but what I’ve also learned in life is you never say never.”

Longtime Sanford family friend Bernie Kole said the affair was a midlife crisis and Mr. Sanford has moved past it.

“He picked himself up and has taken care of his obligations,” Mr. Kole said.

Mr. Kole introduced Mr. Sanford to a crowd of about 100 at a recent Beaufort Rotary Club meeting after giving the governor an application to the club and saying his years of honorary membership and free meals were over.

“But on a personal note, since he is leaving office, I found out he hasn’t got a job yet. Does anybody out there have any openings?” Mr. Kole asked as the crowd laughs. “Please raise your hands or come up later.”