- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford clearly marches - or hikes - to his own drummer.

But the Republican’s solo departure for the Appalachian Trail, which left his wife, security detail and staff grappling to answer queries about his whereabouts, has raised questions among his constituents, his rivals and even his supporters.

Mr. Sanford’s aides said the governor was shocked by the hubbub surrounding his disappearance, speculation that became a national parlor game, and promised he’d be back at work Wednesday.

But even the simplest facts still remain fuzzy, fueling speculation about the man whose losing battle against the state’s acceptance of federal stimulus money was widely viewed as resume building for a potential 2012 presidential bid.

Asked whether Mr. Sanford had informed his wife, Jennifer, of his whereabouts, spokesman Joel Sawyer suggested a call to Mrs. Sanford at the governor’s mansion might yield an answer.

However, when the first lady’s press secretary Meg Milne fielded the call, she said, “I’m not prepared to comment now.”

Mrs. Sanford told a CNN reporter Tuesday that she has not heard from her husband. According to another account, a state police commander said she had called to report her husband missing.

State Democrats called the governor’s behavior irresponsible; some Republicans said the furor over his extended getaway was unwarranted.

Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, was skeptical about the hiking story, telling the Associated Press that “since this whole thing was he wanted to get away from the kids to write things. Strolling down the trail writing?”

But Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, said he’s not surprised by the reports but was eager to hear the governor’s full story.

“This is not unusual behavior for him except that he has been gone since Thursday,” Mr. Dawson said. “I’ve been doing business with Sanford for years and we’ve never had a governor like him. He plays by his own rules, and they’re not negotiable.”

Bits and pieces of the information about his location and intentions come from several sources, including the governor’s spokesman, Mr. Sawyer, and his Democratic opponents.

“Nobody is sure where he is on the Appalachian Trail,” Mr. Sawyer said.

The twice-elected Republican governor and supporter of John McCain’s successful 2008 Republican presidential nomination bid left the governor’s mansion after a long, grueling session of his state’s legislature, apparently having told his wife he had writing to do and wanted to get away for a while.

He reportedly told his staff the same thing and instructed them not to call him - he’d call them - and then slid behind the wheel of his black sport utility vehicle, said goodbye to all and took off. His wife and sons meanwhile have been spending the time at the family’s summer home.

Confronted by reporters outside the beach house Tuesday, Mrs. Sanford said only: “Leave us to our privacy.”

Mr. Sawyer reaffirmed that his boss had called his chief of staff Tuesday morning and said his boss was bemused by all the hullabaloo, so “he decided to cut it short and return Wednesday. He had planned to be away till the end of the week.”

Critics of Mr. Sanford’s absence said it also raised questions under the state constitution, which grants the governor’s powers to the lieutenant governor in the case of the former’s temporary absence, a term that has not been defined in practice.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in defense of his fellow Republican that the governor’s taking time for himself made sense.

But when asked whether the resulting uproar damaged him politically, Mr. Graham replied to reporters, “Nothing [he] can’t repair,” adding that his only criticism of Mr. Sanford was that it was a mistake not to let people know how to get a hold of him.

Mr. Sanford is not your run-of-the-mill chief executive.

“He micromanages everyone and everything, works 23 hours a days and at the end of a legislative session he just disappears,” Mr. Dawson said. “But there has never been a time we couldn’t find the governor if we wanted to.”

Nor can he blame the governor for wanting to get away from it all for a while. The state is in bad shape. With 12 percent unemployment - the third highest in the nation - South Carolina is in the biggest downturn turn since the end of World War II, Mr. Dawson said.

He predicted that when Mr. Sanford does show up and talk to the press, he will be “elusive and vague” about where he has been and why.

“That works with the local press but not with the national press, and the national press is all over the place down here now on this story,” Mr. Dawson said.

So Mr. Sanford may switch to plan B - and explain, sort of, where he was and why. And if that doesn’t work?

“He’ll tell everyone to go to hell,” Mr. Dawson said.

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