WASHINGTON — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is expected Wednesday to become the first governor to formally reject some of the federal stimulus money earmarked by Congress for his state.
The move will cement Sanford's growing reputation as a political powerhouse among Republican party stalwarts nationwide — though how much of the estimated $8 billion in stimulus funds destined for South Carolina will be affected is unclear. The law allows state legislative leaders to accept funds the governor rejects.
"Our objections to the so-called stimulus bill have been well-chronicled for the way it spends money that we don't have and for the way this printing of money could ultimately devalue the American dollar," Sanford said on Tuesday, even as he acknowledged that he'll accept some.
"Those of us opposed to this package lost the debate on these merits, and I now think it is important we look for creative ways to apply and use these monies in accordance with the long-term interests of our state," he said.
Still, Sanford's formal rejection will enhance his standing as a Republican willing to challenge President Barack Obama, a position Sanford first took Dec. 1, when he traveled to Philadelphia to challenge the then president-elect directly at a meeting with the nation's governors.
Since then, a handful of other governors — all Republicans, all talked about as possible 2012 presidential candidates — have joined Sanford in saying they'd reject at least some of their states' stimulus shares.
Sanford's outspoken aversion to using deficit spending to spark an economic recovery has garnered him national TV interviews, op-ed columns in the Wall Street Journal and articles about him in other prominent publications.
All the attention, plus Sanford's increased travel to address Republicans in Washington, Texas and beyond, have sparked talk that he's eyeing a 2012 presidential campaign.
"I don't have a clue whether he wants to run, but he obviously is one of our better-known Republican governors, having run the Republican Governors Association and been around the country and on TV a lot," said Charlie Black, a prominent Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's losing White House bid last year.
"He's very popular," Black said. "His brand of conservatism emphasizing fiscal conservatism is very popular with our grassroots."
Sanford urged 1,000 activists, gathered in late February at the Ronald Reagan Banquet in a Washington hotel, to be prepared to lose, and to feel happy about it.
"Would you be willing to support a cause or a candidate that is likely to lose?" Sanford asked conventioneers at the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual gathering.
As the diners leapt to their feet and applauded, Sanford declared:
"The name of the game is staying true to the principles that got you into politics in the first place _ and letting the chips fall where they may."
Nicole Quinn, of Lancaster, Pa., who waited in a long line to hear Texas Rep. Ron Paul speak at the CPAC convention, said Sanford first came to her attention when he kept his term-limits promise and left Congress in 2000 after serving six years in the House of Representatives.
Now, Sanford's vocal opposition to Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan is prompting Quinn and others to hope he seeks the White House in 2012.
"I supported Ron Paul for president in 2008," Quinn said. "However, if Sanford runs in 2012, I would support him because he would do more than any other candidate to restore the Republican message. Unlike Ron Paul, Mark Sanford has the potential to win over mainstream voters. Whether or not he could beat Barack Obama, he would restore Republican credibility."
Sanford, 48, was elected to Congress in 1994 in a midterm election that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in half a century.
While most of his colleagues abandoned their term-limit pledges, dropped plans to jettison the Department of Education and became less averse to federal spending, Sanford slept on a cot in his office, opposed most appropriations bills _ and left after six years.
In 2002, Sanford became the first South Carolina governor to rise to the state's highest office without first serving in the state's legislature.
If Sanford's firebrand fiscal austerity wins him activist followers, it also has sparked political clashes.
Republican legislators who control the South Carolina General Assembly have joined Democrats in overturning hundreds of Sanford's line-item vetoes, rebuffing his bid to slash the budget in one of the nation's poorest states.
State House Speaker Bobby Harrell, state Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, state Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman and other Republican legislative leaders have worked with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, to ensure that the state doesn't get left off the stimulus gravy train.
Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, crafted several provisions in the stimulus bill aimed at bypassing Sanford and other governors who oppose it.