WASHINGTON With a tearful admission and groveling apologies, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday became the latest member of a fast-growing club of U.S. politicians -- the penitent sexual wanderers.
During a televised news conference on his return from a secret Argentina getaway, Sanford admitted to an extramarital affair with a "dear, dear friend" and apologized profusely to his wife, family, friends, constituents and seemingly everyone else he could think of.
"I hurt a lot of different folks, and all I can say is that I apologize," he said, fighting back tears repeatedly.
Sanford's admission capped days of uncertainty about the whereabouts of the conservative governor and former congressman, considered in some quarters a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
It also made him the latest U.S. politician to face the awkward task of salvaging a career after an illicit sexual affair blew up into public humiliation.
For many U.S. politicians, sex scandals have been a one-way ticket to the political wilderness. A few have weathered the storm, usually after a contrite apology and months of staying out of the public eye.
In today's 24-hour news cycle, the mea culpas are broadcast live and on television, and the fallout comes fast.
CLINTON, SPITZER & CO
Bill Clinton survived an affair with an intern and a months-long impeachment battle in Congress and finished his presidential term still beloved by many in his party. But Eliot Spitzer's dalliances with prostitutes led to a quick resignation as New York governor.
Now he is returning slowly to the public eye as a pundit.
Former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards had an affair that only became public after his White House campaign was over.
He too is making tentative attempts to re-emerge in public and recently gave his first detailed interview. But many of his former supporters remain deeply disenchanted about a man who cheated on his wife while she was battling cancer.
New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey admitted under threat of a lawsuit that he had a homosexual affair with a man he appointed as an adviser and resigned his office in 2004.
Louisiana Senator David Vitter is considered a strong candidate for re-election next year despite admitting he had been a customer of a Washington D.C. prostitution ring.
Nevada Senator John Ensign is hoping for political survival after confessing he had an affair with a campaign aide who was married to one of his top legislative advisers.
Ensign, another man once tipped as a Republican presidential hopeful, followed Vitter's lead in managing his response to the scandal. Both men held apologetic news conferences and then cut off questions about the incidents, hoping they would fade from public memory.
For conservative, family-values politicians like Vitter and Ensign, the revelations are not only embarrassing but mark them as political hypocrites.
Congressman Mark Foley resigned in 2006 after he was revealed to have sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages. The case added to the political troubles for Republicans in that year's mid-term elections, when they were routed by Democrats.
Former Idaho Senator Larry Craig finished his term but did not run for re-election after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct. He was arrested in a Minneapolis airport men's room by an undercover officer who said he was soliciting sex.
Sanford as head of the Republican Governor's Association after admitting to his infidelity. He did not resign as governor but his future beyond that remains unclear.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)