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Jon Lerner is scrambling.

With less than two years remaining in the reign of S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford –  whose election (and reelection) Lerner takes exclusive credit for – time is of the essence.

The governor’s pollster and founder of Red Sea LLC – a Maryland-based political consulting firm – knows that to maintain his lucrative foothold in the Palmetto State, he must leverage his relationship with Sanford like never before.

And that means maintaining the illusion that he is the power behind the throne, so to speak, a trick that the doesn’t lend itself to South Carolina’s mercurial, headstrong Chief Executive.

Lerner didn’t expect to be in this position.

The question of Sanford’s heir apparent was supposed to have been settled already.

The state’s next governor – and Lerner’s next paycheck – was supposed to be Spartanburg, S.C. businesswoman Karen Floyd, whose campaign for State Superintendent Lerner ran in 2006.

But something went wrong … Floyd lost.

In fact, she was the only Republican to lose a statewide campaign that year, with Lerner somehow managing to take her incredibly attractive candidacy and run it completely into the ground with a combination of bad television and awful advice.

Next, Lerner badly miscalculated the 2008 GOP presidential primary in South Carolina, throwing all of his eggs – and almost all of Sanford’s eggs – into the basket of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Sanford ultimately declined to endorse Giuliani, but it wasn’t for Lerner’s lack of trying.

Of course the Rudy flirtation was damaging for them both, with Sanford missing out on a possible VP pick and Lerner losing significant credibility in South Carolina – where Giuliani finished in sixth place with just 2% of the GOP vote.

Now, Lerner is once again pushing buttons and pulling levers in the Palmetto State in the hopes he can dial up influence for himself beyond 2010, but this time he’s struggling to manage the expectations game.

He’s also reportedly doing a lot more “talking out of school” than he ever did before as it relates to Sanford’s interests.

“(Lerner’s) problem is desperate times have called for desperate measures,” said one GOP consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly. “He banked on Mark very successfully in years past because he never overextended himself, never spoke out of school … (that’s) changed considerably in the last year.”

Specifically, Lerner is said to be playing “cat-and-mouse” with Sanford on two high-profile Republican contests – the 2010 governor’s race and the 2009 SCGOP Chairman’s election.

On the one hand, sources say he’s making calls to GOP activists ostensibly bearing the “imprimatur of the governor,” urging them to stay uncommitted in the 2010 GOP Gubernatorial Primary and to support Karen Floyd over Kevin Hall in the SCGOP Chairman’s race.

On the other hand, Lerner is hedging his bets with Sanford by counseling the governor to stay out of the Chairman’s race, just as he counseled Sanford to refrain from endorsing Katon Dawson for Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Mixed messaging, to be sure, but all aimed at minimizing Lerner’s risk and maximizing his return.

What specific fruit does Lerner hope to bear from all of this?

Well, if Floyd wins the SCGOP race, it would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to him.

Similarly, if he can successfully engineer the selection process of a “Sanford candidate” in 2010, he could reap a similar financial windfall.

Whether or not the GOP establishment bends to his will, however, remains to be seen.

With the exception of Sanford’s two elections, it hasn’t in the past. And it’s common knowledge that Lerner assigns himself a disproportionately large share of the credit for Sanford’s wins.

Plus, if it begins to get out that Lerner is “freelancing” – i.e. acting without Sanford’s backing – it could diminish the viability of those candidates who hitch their wagons to his fading Palmetto star.