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Sanford looking to 'next chapter'

The S.C. governor hung on to survive his political implosion.

BEAUFORT, S.C. - Things are looking up for Gov. Mark Sanford as he prepares to leave office on his own terms more than a year after the international affair that derailed his once-promising political career.

He will be replaced by his chosen successor. Tea party supporters across the country have taken up his messages about fiscal responsibility. Friends say his midlife crisis is over.

Still, the two-term Republican says he's not sure what's next. "It's an interesting spot to be at, because my nature is always to have a next plan, but on this one I don't," said Sanford, 50, a former developer-turned-congressman.

All he will say for now is that he plans to take his son's pickup truck and head toward home on the state's southern coast, though he's not sure exactly where he'll live.

"I'm driving east on 26 and beyond that, it's a new adventure and we'll figure out the next chapter of life," he said.

The previous chapters include one of the decade's most-watched political implosions.

He disappeared from the state for five days in June 2009 and told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but he was really in Argentina visiting his mistress. He returned and, at a news conference, confessed, "I have been unfaithful to my wife."

In lengthy interviews, Sanford declared his lover his soul mate.

Weeks later, wife Jenny Sanford moved out of the governor's mansion with their four sons. The governor did not contest the divorce that followed. She wrote a tell-all memoir, Staying True, and began a national book tour.

Mark Sanford resisted calls to resign, fought an impeachment push, and endured a formal rebuke from lawmakers who said he embarrassed the state. He paid a $74,000 ethics fine for improprieties in his flights on state and private aircraft and his campaign spending.

New questions came last spring when Sanford met in Florida with his Argentine lover, Maria Belen Chapur. He later explained he was seeking to rekindle the romance.

"Time will tell," he said in May. "I don't know if it will or won't."

With the end of his term-limited tenure now in focus, he won't talk about Chapur.

"I think I have said more than I ever need to say about my personal life," he said during a recent interview.

Sanford hung on after the scandal broke at the urging of friends and allies, including wealthy lawyer and developer John Rainey. He had recruited Sanford to run for governor and laments his missed opportunities.

Sanford rose to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association and waged the nation's most visible, but losing, 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," Rainey said recently. "That cost him the RGA chairmanship and that just shattered his trajectory upward. But I don't think it's over."

Sanford remains well-regarded in conservative circles. 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," Rainey said, noting former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal and current gig as a cable news talk-show cohost.

During a recent speech to a Rotary club, 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 on the way to a victory in November.

Sanford said he would 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."