ATLANTA — So this was how the bizarre story of South Carolina's missing governor would end: with a sad and shocking South American twist.
It turns out there was another woman for Gov. Mark Sanford, the married champion of conservative values -- a woman in Buenos Aires, one whom his hometown paper has identified only as "Maria."
Their romance blossomed a year ago, after seven years of friendship and the exchange of ideas. This was why he had disappeared, Sanford explained: to go see her, and to cry with her.
In e-mails between the two obtained by the State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, she called their relationship "a kind of impossible love, not only because of distance but situation." He, in turn, wrote about her "erotic beauty" as she held herself "in the faded glow of the night's light."
The tenderness was still evident Wednesday in the governor, even as he made his contrite and tearful announcement of his marital infidelity in a nationally televised news conference. With his Statehouse in crisis, his picture-perfect family on the precipice and his national party bracing for another cycle of sex and scandal, he made a point to speak warmly of her.
"The bottom line is this: I've been unfaithful to my wife," he said in Columbia, hours after returning from South America and touching down at Atlanta's international airport. "I've developed a relationship with a dear, dear friend from Argentina."
The story was big news in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, where unconfirmed reports suggested that the woman was a government worker living in the trendy Palermo neighborhood, an upscale district full of bars, restaurants, shops and diplomatic residences.
But there was no official word on the woman's identity. The U.S. Embassy put out a curt statement to the local press saying the governor had not informed the embassy of his visit as a "private citizen" to Argentina.
Sanford's admission capped a weeklong drama that has played out in newspapers and national cable news shows, and has brought one of the GOP's rising stars crashing back to Earth.
Sanford reportedly left Columbia, the state capital, on June 18; a few days later, state lawmakers began publicly fretting that his whereabouts were unknown. Law enforcement officials reported that he was not responding to phone and text messages.
His wife told reporters her bookish husband wanted to get away from their four boys so he could think and write. His staff said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
At his Wednesday news conference, Sanford said he had misled his staff members, telling them he might go hiking in the mountains. Fighting back tears, the gaunt, sad-eyed governor asked for forgiveness from his staff, his family, and the "moral people of the nation."
"I've let down a lot of people," he said. "In every incident, I would ask for forgiveness."
Sanford's wife, Jenny Sanford, 46, is a canny former investment banker who worked closely with her husband on both politics and policy. They married in 1989.
His 20-minute news conference left open a number of questions about the personal and political future that awaits Sanford, 49, a second-term governor whose recent refusal to take a chunk of federal stimulus money for his state earned him the respect of America's fiscal conservatives, but enmity among liberals in a state with a woeful public education system and the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate.
Sanford did not say Wednesday whether he would resign as governor, though as a congressman he had urged President Clinton to step down because of his affair with a White House intern. Sanford did say he was stepping down as chairman of the Republican Governors Assn.
He said he was not formally separated from his wife. Jenny Sanford later said in a statement that the couple had agreed to a "trial separation . . . with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage."
"When I found out about my husband's infidelity, I worked immediately to first seek reconciliation through forgiveness, and then to work diligently to repair our marriage," the statement said. "We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago."
In the last six years, South Carolinians have grown accustomed to the quirks of Marshall "Mark" Sanford, a wealthy real estate entrepreneur and former congressman who has prided himself on being an unconventional politician: With the governor, a conversation about the flux of daily politics could easily segue into a disquisition on 18th century historian Edward Gibbon.
He was serious about his fiscal conservatism, even clashing with fellow Republicans who didn't meet his standards: In 2004, he brought squealing pigs to the floor of the Statehouse to protest members' "pork" spending.