Mark Sanford is easy to overlook. If Republicans need a champion in the Obama era, there are more colorful candidates than the South Carolina governor. He doesn’t play electric bass, or to the Religious Right, like Mike Huckabee. He has made no attempt to rewrite the GOP’s almost forgotten small-government playbook like Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Though he is popular, Sanford seems incapable of playing a red-meat populist like Sarah Palin. He looks plain, his philosophy is old, and he has an elegiac demeanor that seems incompatible with electoral politics.

But unlike many other Republican politicians of his stature, Sanford recognizes that there are limits to ambition, that government treasuries are not bottomless, and that no ideology can captain the globe. If the promise of “hope” in the form of bailouts fails to revive the American economy, Mark Sanford will be the GOP’s most dangerous man in 2012.

In recent weeks, he has become the unofficial spokesman against Obama’s trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan. Other Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger beg for more federal subsidies, but Sanford has threatened to decline large portions of the bailout, preferring not to bridle South Carolinians with the accompanying obligations. While cable’s talking heads shout at him, he somberly quotes Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. He worries aloud that the bailouts represent a “crisis of American civilization.”

But Sanford’s stringent free-market philosophy was born in experience before it was matured by theory. His father Marshall was a successful heart surgeon in southwest Florida, but strained to teach his sons thrift and hard work. That meant laboring on the family’s summer property, a farm in Beaufort, South Carolina. “His big intent with the farm was teaching us how to work. We thought as we were bailing hay in August that our next meal depended on us getting that hay in. It did not. But we didn’t know any better as kids,” Sanford says.

This education didn’t end with summer. When the family returned to Florida’s scorching Septembers, Sanford recalls, “Everybody slept in Mom and Dad’s room so we’d only run one air-conditioning unit. My brothers on the floor, my sister on the window seat. In retrospect, how totally weird. The guy’s a heart surgeon. He could certainly afford to spring for another air-conditioning unit.” But the lesson took. As governor, Sanford has refused to use the air conditioning in the governor’s mansion in Columbia.

Though he describes his childhood as happy, Sanford’s adolescence was touched by tragedy. When he was a junior in high school, his father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. When he died five years later, the Sanford family buried him under a pair of oak trees overlooking a river, according to his wishes. Mark built the casket. He says,

You hammer the nails closed, you carry it out there in the back of the pickup to a certain part of the farm. You lower the thing down there. You and your brothers do it on your own, and then grab shovels. We say a little prayer, fill the grave, walk back up to the house. It was an intensely personal experience that really hit home for me: you ain’t taking any of this stuff with you.

Those oak trees have cast a long shadow over Sanford. When he’s asked about his ambitions, he refers to this time of his life, as if the driving force in his career is an awareness of his own mortality.

After graduating from Furman University with a BA in business, Sanford got his MBA from the University of Virginia. He worked at Goldman Sachs briefly and met his wife Jenny Sullivan in 1989 in the Hamptons. She is the granddaughter of Bolton Sullivan, the founder of the Skil Corporation, a successful toolmaker. The couple returned to South Carolina, and Mark established himself in real estate, making millions and traveling around the state.

While the Sanfords’ personal wealth doesn’t equal that of the Romneys or Kerrys, their financial security plays a role in Sanford’s approach to politics. “My kids’ next meal isn’t dependent on whether I stay in politics,” he says. “The rarest of all commodities in the world of politics is independence. Yet what is desperately needed in politics is more independence.”

Sanford made the unusual decision to have his wife run his first congressional campaign. He jokes that “the price was right,” but adds that he was looking long term: “We were going to live in South Carolina the rest of our lives. In the heat of a campaign I didn’t want some political guy saying, ‘Do this,’ when it was really contrary to things I believed and thought. She knew what I believed, so it seemed like a no-brainer for me.” Jenny has managed his campaigns ever since. Will Folks, Sanford’s former spokesman and now gadfly editor of Fitsnews.com, says, “The legend is true. It really was Jenny and a bunch of kids working in his basement. She is driven, maybe even more than he is.”

As part of the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, Sanford pledged to serve just three terms. His explanation for the self-imposed limit reveals the two sides of his personality, the brainiac and the bumpkin. He says, “The ‘beta’ is the correlation between an individual stock and the market as a whole. Term limits change the beta of a political decision. Some politicians look at a single political decision and say, ‘Man, this could affect my career for the rest of my life.’ But with term limits, if it only affects you for the next two years, it’s not a life-changing event.”

Naturally, Sanford compiled a strikingly different record from many of his fellow revolutionaries. He regularly found himself grouped with Ron Paul and a few other staunch conservatives like Steve Largent and Tom Coburn on the losing end of lopsided votes. “I remember the leadership would come and say, ‘This stuff is okay during the campaign, but we have to govern,’ and I thought it was govern toward a specific end, not just govern to govern,” Sanford recalls.

But principle had its price. He was the lone vote against a bill to halt violence against women, claiming that it was unconstitutional. The first negative ad he faced in South Carolina claimed Sanford was soft on domestic violence.

He was unsurprised by the party’s quick betrayal of conservative ideals: “A lot of people walked in not clear about what they were about philosophically. And if you aren’t totally clear walking in, you’re going to end up very fuzzy in a very short period of time.”

Soon after he left Washington, Sanford sought to impose his clarity on Columbia. He faced a crowded Republican gubernatorial primary that included representatives from South Carolina’s three largest political families. In a field of pious hucksters, self-styled Reaganite optimists, and other GOP mutants, Sanford stood out for his authenticity. He toned down the brainiac and played up his folksiness. He out-raised his opponents, pulling in over $100,000 a day at the height of the contest. Sanford bought more television time than his opponents and filled it with scenes of his four sons and pretty wife.

At the same time, he imposed pathologically tight control on the campaign’s finances. “He’d pick up change from the street during an event. If he found an index card in the garbage and saw that only one side of it had been used, he would explain to the staffer,‘This is how campaigns are lost’,” Folks says. Employees were sent to return supplies Sanford deemed too expensive or reimburse the campaign for their mistake. Even today, Sanford gets his hair cut at Supercuts—and brings a coupon.

His record as governor is sound by conservative standards, but thin. He proposed a plan to eliminate the state’s income tax within 18 years, but abandoned the project when political compromise that involved an expanded property tax transgressed his ideology. “He won’t take 10 cents of something he dislikes for a dollar of something he loves,” Folks says. But when staffers advised him to tacitly endorse primary challenges against the moderate GOP legislators who stymied his reformist agenda, Sanford played it safe and backed incumbents. There are limits even to his political will.

Sanford’s most notable accomplishment as governor may be eliminating an illegal $155 million budget deficit that was hidden by his predecessor. When trying to find the last $16 million, legislators suggested that he had done enough. Sanford replied, “I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution. It doesn’t say come close and declare victory.” He then vetoed 106 pork projects to make up the deficit and was overruled on 105 of them. The next day, he took two piglets and an array of cameramen into the statehouse—his first and probably last attempt at playing rabble rouser. “I don’t like using political instruments that blunt,“ he admits, “but what’s not remembered is that it worked.”

Though he had endorsed John McCain in 2000, Sanford stayed out of the Republican contest in 2008. Two days before the primary, Sen. Lindsey Graham was dispatched to Sanford’s office with a plea and an offer. Graham told Sanford that an endorsement from the popular governor could put McCain over the top in the key primary state. In return, he promised a spot on McCain’s veep shortlist. Sanford responded cooly, “I don’t need your help getting on the shortlist” and declined.

Once the nomination was settled, Sanford wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed making the case for McCain. But when he was asked to defend McCain’s economic proposals by Wolf Blitzer, his smooth delivery degenerated into a stammering admission that he was stumped. The gaffe was used against him, but the clip is cited by libertarians as a point in Sanford’s favor since for them there was no credible defense of McCain’s economics.

Sanford’s conservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else mentioned as a 2012 presidential contender. He calls the public-education system “a Soviet-style monopoly.” He promoted school choice through tax rebates to avoid the appearance of government control. He passed a “Castle doctrine” bill that was supported by the NRA. He favors a law-and-order approach to immigration, but opposed REAL ID on civil liberties grounds. Though he avoids showy displays of piety, he is reliably pro-life.

But the governor edges closer to pure libertarianism at times. He rolls his eyes at the Columbia sheriff’s department’s zeal in investigating Michael Phelps’s recreational pot use. And he criticizes Alan Greenspan’s management of the “opaque” Federal Reserve. “If you take human nature out of a Fed, it might work,” he explains. “But you can’t. You can have these wise men. But who wants to turn off the spigot at a party that’s rolling?“

He also deviates from the Republican line on foreign policy. In Congress, he opposed Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo. And he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the 1998 resolution to make regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States. He says that it was a “protest vote” in which he tried to reassert the legislature’s war-declaring powers. When asked about the invasion of Iraq, he extends his critique beyond the constitutional niceties. “I don’t believe in preemptive war,” he says flatly. “For us to hold the moral high ground in the world, our default position must be defensive.”

Sanford has occasionally made political decisions that cut against his principles. He appointed Bill Stern, a prominent Republican fundraiser, to the board of South Carolina’s Port Authority. But Stern and other Sanford appointees have refused to loosen total state control of the ports, even though most ports in America accept private-public partnerships. During Sanford’s term, Charleston has dropped from fourth to seventh in the nation in port rankings and may soon lose its largest account. If Sanford had imposed his free-market philosophy on his appointees, Charleston would not be in danger of losing more jobs and private capital to competitors in Savannah and Norfolk.

And Sanford’s penny-pinching, while appealing in an era of excess, occasionally defies all common sense. While he lived in Columbia as governor, the state classified his mansion on Sullivan’s Island as a second residence and taxed it at the higher rate of 6 percent as opposed to 4 percent for a primary residence. It was only a difference of $3,300, but Sanford fought the classification even though he was renting the house out at the time.

Candidates with national ambitions usually make haste to clear up potential scandals in their pasts. Early in George W. Bush’s presidential run, his camp released a statement dealing with Mrs. Bush’s 1963 car accident in which her boyfriend was killed. But Governor Sanford’s team has failed to get ahead of a story that could become tabloid fodder. During Sanford’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2002, an 8-year-old African-American girl wandered onto a Sanford family property on Lady’s Island and drowned. A source close to the governor said she fell into a “retaining pond.” Her family’s lawyer, Manning Smith, called it a “pit.” Other sources claim that Sanford, who owned a hydraulic excavator at the time, digs holes on his property to unwind. According to a source involved in the settlement, the governor’s insurance company paid the girl’s family “around $300,000.” During Sanford’s second run, after rumors began to circulate, local newspapers and the AP looked into the incident, but haven’t reported it. South Carolina politicos speculate that if Sanford’s national profile increases, The State will finally run its story. There had been no official comment until Sanford’s spokesman, Joel Sawyer, told TAC, “This was a tragic accident, and Governor Sanford did everything he could to do right by the family involved.” He declined to elaborate.

Beyond his rare lapses in ideological or political judgment, Mark Sanford doesn’t seem to have the charisma that conservatives say their message needs. He is awkward in the clubby world of politics. He can regale you with long stories details about a budget skirmish with the legislature, but he has almost nothing to say about USC basketball. He draws lessons from Ayn Rand’s work (“She doesn’t believe in the social compact really”), but is unfamiliar with basic sports metaphors, claiming, “We got the proposal to the 99-yard line.”

Close legislative ally Gary Simrill admits, “He’s not the ‘morning in America’ type.” But Sanford’s appeal isn’t about personality. For him, the imperial executive and the celebrity president are linked: “It got to the point of absurdity with this election. Everybody put a lot of hopes and dreams in Obama. But our nation was founded by the rule of law, not by men.” The governing style of movie stars, whether they call their opponents “girly men” or don flight suits for the cameras, led to the present crisis. Official Washington has no memory, demands largesse, and prizes optimism as its cardinal virtue. But Sanford is haunted by the past, tight with a checkbook, and worried about future. If he has any chance, it’s because he sounds a lot like the rest of us.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is TAC’s national correspondent.