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State House leaders shocked

S.C. political leaders and other officials reacted to Gov. Mark Sanford’s confession Wednesday to an Argentine romance like a downtrodden lot who had heard one tale too many.

“Today’s revelations are disturbing and shocking,” said Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. “There is no excuse for the unfortunate events that have transpired in recent days. ... For five days, the governor let his staff deceive the press and the people of South Carolina regarding where he was and what he was doing.”

Harrell said the General Assembly must establish a clear line of succession to the governor’s office next year.

Democrats were highly critical.

“When it comes to the real needs and concerns of South Carolinians, Mark Sanford has been pretty much missing in action for the last 6½ years,” said Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “But it is not acceptable for him to be actually missing.”

Senate Minority Leader John C. Land, D-Clarendon, the longest-serving state senator, said, “The governor’s office misled the media, the lieutenant governor, and the people of South Carolina. Never in my 32 years as a state senator have I witnessed a governor and his staff act in a more dishonest, secretive and bizarre manner.”

The political reaction was not limited to Sanford-bashing by Democrats, however. Republicans bashed, too.

“I’m deeply disturbed that no one knew where Governor Sanford was over the last five days,” said state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, the Senate Majority Leader. “He left the country and deliberately made himself unavailable without delegating power to the lieutenant governor. In the process, he misled his staff who unknowingly misled the public.”

Peeler brought up the subject of “gubernatorial negligence.”

In the next few days, lawmakers may consider whether Sanford abandoned his duties as governor. No lawmaker uttered the word “impeachment.” But most left the impression an apology may not be enough.

“We all know that leaving the state without a governor for any period of time is not acceptable,” said Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Republican who plans to run for governor in 2010. “I suspect Governor Sanford now understands that better than anyone else.”

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, also a candidate for governor in 2010, said: “This is an unfortunate distraction for our state, and we cannot afford to lose sight of the problems that desperately need to be addressed in South Carolina.”

Republican Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington, another candidate to replace Sanford next year, issued a statement praising Sanford’s fiscal conservatism and efforts to restructure government.

“However, another component is behaving in a manner that allows people to trust in their public officials and feel good about their government,” said Haley, considered likely to get Sanford’s backing. “Obviously, the governor has fallen far short in that regard and that is extremely unfortunate.”

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, ripped Sanford.

Leatherman — who clashed repeatedly with Sanford over money issues, taking sharp criticism from him — said Sanford “basically stopped being governor” while in Argentina.

“We on the Senate side, and on the House side, are looking to get a definition of what’s an emergency and what’s an abandonment of office,” he said.

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