NEW YORK - South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has been the leading voice among Republican governors who have criticized President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan as a pork-laden boondoggle that will plunge the country further into debt. It's won him praise from many conservatives and boosted his national profile, fueling speculation he will run for president in 2012.
But the governor's announcement this week that he may reject nearly a quarter of the money headed to South Carolina has stirred criticism in the state and elsewhere that he has placed his own political future ahead of the needs of the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Several GOP governors, including Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, have said they would reject a portion of the money that would expand unemployment benefits to those not currently eligible to receive them. Sanford says he will also reject those funds but has threatened to go much further, requesting a waiver to spend some $700 million targeted for education and other programs to pay down some of the state's debt instead.
"I have come to conclude that it would be a mistake to simply accept the money as offered," Sanford wrote to state legislators in announcing his decision. "When one is in a hole, the first order of business is to stop digging."
Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has steadfastly denied that his actions around the stimulus have been politically motivated, noting that he has taken a hard line on tax and spending issues since 1994, when he was first elected to Congress. He was elected governor in 2002.
"I've got a 15-year pattern of doing exactly this kind of thing," Sanford said.
But his announcement came the same week that South Carolina's unemployment shot to 10.4 percent, the second highest in the nation. With those dire figures as a backdrop, national Democrats - keenly aware of Sanford's rising national stature - piled on.
In an e-mail blast to reporters Thursday, the Democratic National Committee assembled a collection of national and state news stories criticizing Sanford's action.
"Mark Sanford is putting his personal ambition ahead of the people of South Carolina by kowtowing to the Rush Limbaugh-led, obstructionist wing of the Republican Party," DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.
Even Democratic governors got in the game, with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issuing a statement decrying Sanford's "fringe" stance.
"Every state should be laser-focused right now on one issue: jobs, jobs, jobs," O'Malley, vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said, adding, "This rejection is less about the people of South Carolina than it is Sanford's political ambitions."
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, dismissed Sanford's move as "100 percent political posturing."
Clyburn also criticized Sanford on Thursday for a comment he made at a news conference in South Carolina comparing Obama's economic stimulus efforts to the hyperinflationary economy in Zimbabwe, one of Africa's most corrupt governments.
"What took the man to Zimbabwe?" Clyburn said in Washington. "Someone should ask him if that's really the best comparison. ... How can he compare this country's situation to Zimbabwe?"
Sanford's effort has even irked some Republican lawmakers in the state, who had made plans to use at least $350 million of the money for state budget items before learning of the governor's decision.
"What I think's happening here is he has made headlines again, national headlines, and that is what he is after," said state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, a Republican who introduced a measure Thursday that would allow the Legislature to circumvent Sanford's actions.
"It's my intent to take every dollar we can get," Leatherman said, calling Sanford's efforts "tomfoolery."
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said Sanford's position was "very consistent" with how he's governed in South Carolina and said there was a national constituency that would find his approach appealing.
"I think there are limits to being so ideological, but as you get into national politics, it's a way of appealing to very strong fiscal conservatives," Black said. "They are a large part of the Republican Party, but it's not clear they are a majority."