COLUMBIA, S.C. - When things looked their darkest for Gov. Mark Sanford - when he was in danger of being impeached for running off to Argentina to see his mistress - his best insurance policy may well have been South Carolina's lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer.
Lawmakers knew if they removed Sanford, they would end up with Bauer, a fiercely ambitious Republican with a reputation for reckless and immature behavior.
Now Bauer has folks shaking their heads again, after he likened government assistance to the poor to feeding stray animals.
At a town hall meeting Thursday, Bauer, who is running for governor in his own right now that Sanford is term-limited, said: "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."
Democrats and others railed at him.
"I am disgusted by these comments. They show an unbelievable lack of compassion toward the unemployed workers in our state who are hurting during these hard times," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat who is also running for governor. "His comments were immoral and out of line."
South Carolina schools Superintendent Jim Rex, another Democratic candidate for governor, called Bauer's comments "reprehensible" and said he should apologize.
Bauer said Monday that he regrets his choice of words but that government should expect welfare recipients to try to better themselves. He wants to require them to take drug tests and attend parent-teacher conferences if they have children in school.
A child of divorce who benefited from free lunches himself, Bauer insisted he wasn't bad-mouthing people laid off from work in the recession or advocating taking food from children, but rather emphasizing the need to break the cycle of dependency.
"Do I wish I'd used a different metaphor? Of course I do," the 40-year-old said. "I didn't intend to offend anyone."
Bauer has long been a love-him-or-hate-him figure in South Carolina politics. A nonstop campaigner and self-described workaholic, he was the youngest elected lieutenant governor in the country when he first won the No. 2 spot in 2002 at age 33.
Before his 2006 re-election, he shattered his heel when the single-engine plane he was piloting ran into power lines, crashed and caught fire. Bauer's office said the maintenance company that overhauled the engine botched the job. Court records show that a federal administrative law judge in June fined the company for returning the plane with incorrect bolts.
During the campaign, it was also disclosed that Bauer had been stopped for speeding twice, but not ticketed, even though in one instance he was going 101 mph in a 70 mph zone. He said he didn't realize how fast he was going and never asked for preferential treatment.
Bauer twice ran on a separate ticket from Sanford and the two have never been chums. In 2006, Sanford's now-estranged wife, Jenny, supported Bauer's primary opponent.
Bauer almost ascended to the top office last summer, after Sanford disappeared from the state for five days to be with his mistress. But the Legislature stopped short of impeachment.
Politicians who had gubernatorial ambitions of their own, or were backing other candidates, knew that replacing Sanford with Bauer would have given the lieutenant governor a year-and-a-half tryout for the job and the benefit of running as an incumbent.
At least three other Republicans and five Democrats have said they are running for governor.
Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University, said Bauer tends to speak so fast and enthusiastically ("It's almost like a Gatling gun") that he sometimes "gets his mouth in place quicker than his head." Thigpen said the lieutenant governor's latest remarks could hurt him in the general election in the fall by allowing Democrats to portray him as "insensitive and downright cruel."
But as for the June Republican primary, "don't count him out. The kid's got a fanatical following," Thigpen said. "They're going to forgive him almost anything and stick to him like glue."
Similarly, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Bauer's words "came out as condescending and insulting," but his overall message about government dependency and personal responsibility will appeal to his evangelical Republican base.
State GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd, who is not taking sides in the race for the nomination, said the flap should be a lesson to everyone to "choose our words more carefully."