No. 8: Maria Belen Chapur

Of all the high-profile and Web-monitored mistresses of 2010, Maria Belen Chapur was one who kept her distance. Then again, the woman at the receiving end of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford‘s affections (and impassioned emails) lived nearly 5,000 miles from the scandal’s epicenter.

Local media set up camp at her place near the Buenos Aires zoo when the story first broke in 2009. American media (and their translators) did their darndest to profile Sanford’s “soul mate.” Soon after, she released a statement to say that her private life was her own, she’d make no more statements, and that whoever hacked her email account and found the governor’s messages had destroyed a lot of lives.

Distance has helped: Few details have emerged since the initial investigative flurry, beyond the barest sketch of a mother of two who once worked as a TV reporter and interpreter. But, when the marriage between Mark and Jenny Sanford ended in March, a sighting of soul mates seemed preordained.

Sure enough, a spring weekend weekend trip to Florida tied the governor with an attractive brunette. He later confirmed the outing, without naming names, at a press conference.

“As a matter of record, everybody in this room knows exactly who I was with over the weekend … That is no mystery to anybody given what I said last summer. And you know the purpose was obviously to see if something could be restarted on that front, given the rather enormous geographic gulf between us, and time will tell, I don’t know if it will or it won’t.”

With a calmer and more tight-lipped Sanford at the helm, everyone’s attention was back to politics as usual — South Carolina state politics, that is. In a gubernatorial election year, the only relationship that occupied political observers was his support for candidate Nikki Haley.

It took the ex-first lady of South Carolina to spill the details in October that something had indeed restarted: Jenny Sanford confirmed to “Good Morning America” that the governor was seeing Chapur. She hoped for a union, “because it would make it seem like maybe there was a reason to break the whole family up and go through all this.”

The four sons have yet to meet dad’s new lady, although Argentina is no longer on the “do not mention during dinnertime” list. Indeed, according to Mom, son Bolton made Argentina a school assignment and wrote on the family crest, “Dad has this mistress in Argentina, and we had to move back to Charleston.”

Further Chapur sightings will doubtless be reported if and when she visits our fair continent again. Meanwhile, the distance that’s news these days is the one that appears to be growing between Sanford and Haley, set to take the governor’s seat come January.

Chapur’s discretion paid off for Mark Sanford. The New York Times, noting higher approval ratings and budget wins, said the lame-duck governor was leaving on a “political upswing.” Many South Carolinians graded him a C or better.

As for his next steps, he feels grateful for the forgiveness after his self-described “political near-death” and says that he’s learned “you never say never in life.” To paraphrase Andrew Lloyd Webber, don’t cry for Mark Sanford … well, you know the rest.

–Vera H-C Chan