It's never too soon to self-destruct as a presidential hopeful, as Mark Sanford has once again proved. The South Carolina Governor's bizarre summer fling in Argentina surely ends his chances of landing the Republican nomination in 2012. It has already forced his resignation as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and may finish his career in state politics. For his party, it is another public embarrassment at a moment when Republican fortunes are at their lowest ebb in decades.
Mr Sanford, 49, a colourful figure with strong credentials as a fiscal and social conservative, has been seen as a rising star in a party notably short of them. In 2008, he was mentioned as a running mate for John McCain before the job went to Sarah Palin.
He gave a big clue to his presidential ambitions earlier in the year when he ostentatiously tried to block his state from receiving funds from President Barack Obama's stimulus package, on the grounds that the $787bn (£481bn) measure was creating unsustainable debt. That carefully crafted image now lies in ruins.
The leaked emails of his correspondence with his lover, published on the website of a leading state newspaper, are embarrassing in their own right. "I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses," writes this erstwhile pillar of fiscal and family rectitude, "or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night's light – but hey, that would be going into sexual details."
More damaging was the rambling, incoherent nature of his press conference on Wednesday in which he confessed all, after disappearing for six days – according to his aides, on a solitary, soul-cleansing hike in the Appalachian mountains, but in reality, for a five-day tryst in Buenos Aires with his mistress, identified as "Maria".
Infidelity need not be fatal to American political ambition. It didn't stop Bill Clinton from winning the presidency. And Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor in 2008 when it was revealed he had patronised a call-girl ring, is taking steps towards rebuilding his own career.
The crucial difference, however, is that Messrs Clinton and Spitzer were Democrats. Mr Sanford – like Senator John Ensign of Nevada, another 2012 White House aspirant who confessed to an affair last week – is a Republican who cultivated the Christian right, an important component of the party base. Their lapses will open Republicans in general to charges of hypocrisy and sleaze. "If Republicans talk about family values, people will just roll their eyes," one veteran of the Bush White House said. Mr Sanford's downfall comes just as his party gains some traction with its criticism of the trillions of dollars of deficits run up by Mr Obama. But now, for a while at least, all of that will be eclipsed by lurid tales of sexual transgression.
In the meantime, the Republican field for 2012 is looking thinner than ever. Ms Palin has done nothing to dispel the impression that she is a lightweight and a prima donna. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, has had a brief moment in the sun, but of late the party's most high profile spokesmen have been the deeply unpopular former vice-president Dick Cheney and the controversial radio host Rush Limbaugh.
The main beneficiary of the turmoil is likely to be Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran in 2008, and has been visibly preparing for a second attempt.Reuse content