LANCASTER -- Gov. Mark Sanford took a tour of University of South Carolina-Lancaster on Thursday, but wouldn't commit to backing away from his call to close the two-year college.
Students crowded around the governor as he walked the campus with Dean John Catalano. Some just wanted to take his picture with their cell phones. Others approached him with a message.
''We want you to keep our school,'' one student told Sanford. ''This is all we got.''
''Long live USC-L!'' another said.
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Surrounded by onlookers and TV cameras, Sanford found himself at the center of a different kind of conflict than the ones he's become used to in recent months.
The governor called for closing USC Lancaster in his last budget request. He visited Thursday for a campus tour with Catalano, who made a case for his school's survival as he showed off the library, performance hall and other buildings.
''It's the heart of this community; it really is,'' the dean said.
Sanford visited at the urging of Lancaster Republican Greg Gregory, a former state senator appointed by the governor to the USC board of trustees.
Afterward, Sanford wouldn't say whether his January budget request would again call for closing the school and two-year colleges in Allendale and Union. Lawmakers nixed the idea last year.
The governor has long quoted figures that say South Carolina spends 17 percent of its state budget on higher education, more than any other Southeastern state except Kentucky.
Consolidating two- and four-year college administration would save $32 million, based on Sanford's spending plan last year.
''I was impressed with what I saw -- the energy the students bring to bear advocating for a school they love,'' Sanford told The Herald.
''This is the beginning of a conversation on how you keep in place local institutions, but at the same time, rationalize a system that needs to change.''
The visit gave Sanford a better sense of the school's value, said state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, who accompanied him on the tour.
Mulvaney has said Sanford was trying to make a point about government inefficiency, but picked a bad way to do it.
''You've got to speak to Mark Sanford in a language he understands, and that's efficiency and results,'' Mulvaney said. ''That's what we've been trying to do for two years.''
Sanford chatted with students as he made his way around campus. When a student mentioned plans to major in journalism, Sanford broke out in a grin.
''Don't go to the dark side,'' he said, glancing at reporters nearby.
As Sanford touted familiar priorities like government restructuring, it was almost possible to forget the troubles that have turned him into a source of national ridicule.
The visit came on the same day as the release of an Associated Press investigation that found Sanford relied on charter jet services costing more than $63,000 when traveling in Europe on two state business trips.
The state GOP and 61 of the 72 House members from his own party have called for Sanford's resignation, a list that started after Sanford confessed to a yearlong affair with a woman in Argentina.
Speaking to the Lancaster Rotary Club after his campus visit, Sanford sought to keep the focus on a reform agenda for the 15 months left in his term.
''That's the only reason I'm still here,'' he said.
The governor said he was hesitant to make an apology because TV news crews would portray the visit as an ''apology tour.'' Nonetheless, he went on to apologize to the audience of 75 people, though he didn't specify a reason other than ''letting you down.''
''I'm clearly not running for president,'' he said later. ''We clearly got that established. Which leaves the question, where do we go from here?''
With that set-up, Sanford launched into his standard Rotary Club speech, calling for a modernized state government that eliminates the Budget and Control Board and would have the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team on the same ticket.
''I've been talking about this stuff for the last 6 1/2 years of my life,'' he said. ''What's different is we have a political energy that's never been there in my entire time in office.''
A questioner drew a testy response, asking Sanford whether someone with fewer distractions would have more success.
''You tell me, who would advocate restructuring over the next 15 months?'' Sanford replied. ''I'm asking you.''
Caught off-guard, the questioner fumbled for an answer for a moment before Sanford jumped back in. The process of redemption, he said, doesn't include quitting when things get tough.
''You've got to stick around for the second part of the show.''
Matt Garfield 803-329-4063