Now Mark Sanford has taken a swan dive from the moral high ground.
By admitting to an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina on Wednesday, the Republican governor makes the already-difficult end of his term-limited administration nearly untenable.
He has alienated leaders of his GOP-dominated state Legislature for years, but said recently he was finding comfort outside the Statehouse as a champion for smaller government and lower taxes.
He was raising his national political profile with his outspoken fight against using federal cash for anything but paying down debt. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he was raising money for candidates and deflecting talk he was planning to run for president in 2012.
The speed of his collapse was shocking.
About three weeks ago, he lost a court battle to reject the federal stimulus money. A few days later, his wife, Jenny Sanford, kicked him out of their home to begin a "trial separation" with hopes of reconciling.
Then on Monday, lawmakers and reporters started questioning where the governor had been for five days. His aides said the outdoorsman was hiking the Appalachian Trail to wind down from a grueling legislative session.
But on Wednesday the governor held a rambling, tearful news conference in which he finally revealed the truth: "I've been unfaithful to my wife." His family did not attend.
The 49-year-old ruminated on God's law, moral absolutes and following one's heart. He said he spent the last five days "crying in Argentina."
As Sanford awaits the political fallout, longtime friend and political aide Tom Davis said he thinks the governor can weather the storm, saying South Carolinians had a "tremendous capacity for forgiveness."
"Now, I think the South Carolina people also have a fine nose for hypocrisy," Davis said on CBS' The Early Show Thursday. "So the next few days are going to tell the tale about whether or not governor sanford is sincere in terms of taking responsibility for his actions, and the pain he's caused the people."
"And knowing the man that he is, I think he will make that case, and I think the South Carolina people will give him a chance."
Davis was Sanford's former chief of staff and is currently a state senator in South Carolina.
Sanford described the woman who lives in Argentina as a "dear, dear friend" whom he has known for about eight years and been romantically involved with for about a year. He said he has seen her three times since the affair began, and his wife found out about it five months ago.
Sanford denied instructing his staff to cover up his affair, but acknowledged that he told them he thought he would be hiking on the Appalachian Trail and never corrected that impression after leaving for South America.
"I let them down by creating a fiction with regard to where I was going," Sanford said. "I said that was the original possibility. Again, this is my fault in ... shrouding this larger trip."
The State newspaper in Columbia published steamy e-mails between Sanford and the woman. Sanford did not identify her, nor did he answer directly whether the relationship with the Argentinian woman was over.
"What I did was wrong. Period," he said.