FILE - In this April 3, 2009 file photo, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford fields questions during a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Sanford's wife Jenny said, Monday, June 22, 2009, she did not know the location of the two-term Republican chief executive. Sanford's staff declined to disclose where he was. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, file)
WASHINGTON (AP) - A potential White House contender in 2012 staked a claim Sunday to rehabilitating the Republican Party in the wake of extramarital affairs by two leading Republicans that have damaged the GOP's family-values image.
"Any time you have leading figures who are engaged in behavior that is sad and troubling and hypocritical, other people are going to look at that and say, 'Hmm, they don't walk the walk.' And so the words and the actions don't ring true," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Gov. "It certainly hurts the brand."
Pawlenty added: "I think I can make a contribution, in a positive way, for trying to rebuild this party. And it needs it."
The latest disclosed dalliance, involving Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., is sad and troubling, said Pawlenty, joined on the Sunday talks by two other possible presidential rivals who stepped carefully around the fallout.
Just talking about the Sanford matter is impolite, added Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran for president in 2008, said the culture of the nation is hurt at such times.
Pawlenty and Barbour appeared to compare the sex scandals that apparently have sidelined Sanford and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., from the group of 2012 hopefuls to Republican failure to stop runaway federal spending in recent years.
The link, they said, was hypocrisy.
"If you're going to be, for example, the party of fiscal discipline and be the person talking who's about fiscal responsibility, then you better do that," said Pawlenty. "And so hypocrisy doesn't sell, and the Republicans have to be true to their values, be true to their principles and walk the walk."
Pawlenty, on the short list when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was considering a running mate in 2008, said the Sanford and Ensign scandals have damaged his party, although to what degree he didn't
Ensign, like Sanford a social conservative who promoted family and religious values and criticized President Bill Clinton for his affair with an intern, admitted two weeks ago to an extramarital affair.
Barbour declined to discuss Sanford directly. "I just don't talk about people's personal problems. I don't think it's appropriate, I don't think it's polite, and I don't think it achieves any purpose," he said. Barbour said he doesn't think the scandal will affect a single vote in this fall's gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia.
"For us as Republicans, the biggest issue about this or about spending or about other policy issues is Republicans need to do what they say they're going to do," said Barbour, who took over leadership of the Republican Governors Association when Sanford resigned from that post. "I mean, that's the issue. Are you going to do what you say you're going to do?"
Romney agreed that everyone makes mistakes but asserted that people in public life ought to be held to a higher standard.
"Not all mistakes are the same. And not everybody is a governor or a senator or a president. And we expect people to live by a higher standard because what they do is going to be magnified. Their families are going to be hurt more by what they do," Romney said. "The things they care about will be hurt. And the culture of the nation and the people who follow them will be hurt."
Some Republicans won't live up to the party's values and its standards of ethical conduct, Romney said.
"That's going to be true," he said. "But not speaking about things that are important would be an enormous mistake."
Romney said a second presidential run is "way beyond my horizon at this point" and that he is focusing on helping Republicans running for office this fall and in 2010.
As for his own presidential ambitions, Barbour said: "I'd be very surprised if I ended up running for president, but I can't just say flatly no. But I would be very surprised. My wife would be even more surprised."
Asked if he was running for president, Pawlenty said: "I don't know what the future holds for me, but I do know this. I feel strongly about the values and principles for the Republican Party. I believe I have something to say about that."
Pawlenty spoke Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" while Barbour appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" and Romney on NBC's "Meet the Press."