Is a Sanford comeback possible?

gsmith@islandpacket.comDecember 21, 2012 

In this file photo, Gov. Mark Sanford speaks to the Beaufort Rotary Club at St. Peter Catholic Church on Lady's Island.

BOB SOFALY , THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

S.C. politicians and consultants say there might be a pathway for former Gov. Mark Sanford to reclaim the Lowcountry congressional seat that includes Beaufort County, where he lives.

That's in spite of the international headlines Sanford made in 2009 when, as governor, he secretly slipped out of the state to visit his Argentine lover, wrecking his marriage and eliciting comments from Sanford that his political life was over.

He must have changed his mind, according to a growing number of political insiders who have talked directly to Sanford and to an unnamed strategist who say the libertarian-leaning Republican will take advantage of the rare opportunity to win the congressional seat in a special election.

The seat will be become available when Rep. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, is sworn in Jan. 3 as the replacement for Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who announced earlier this month he is retiring with four years remaining in his term to become the head of the Heritage Foundation think tank.

Sanford is expected to announce his candidacy next month.

How is it possible after such a public disgrace?

Recent polling doesn't bode well for such a run. The former governor received a 30 percent favorability rating in a state poll earlier this month from Public Policy Polling. More than half had an unfavorable opinion of the former governor.

But take the extramarital affair out of the equation, and a path to victory emerges.

A 2010 poll by Winthrop University found that a majority of South Carolinians -- about seven out of 10 -- give the governor a grade of "C" or better for his performance as governor.

And he's got other big advantages, too, say politicos.

For starters, he's got the cash for the race, which could cost about $500,000 for the primary and another $250,000 for the runoff.

Sanford already has more than $120,000 in his federal account and more than $1 million in his state account. The state money could only be used only if Sanford gets permission from each donor to use it in the congressional race.

"Suppose he converts a third (of the state money) -- then he's the (financial) front runner," said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party.

The calendar might also help Sanford's run. Because it would be a special election, candidates would have a matter of weeks to raise money, introduce themselves to voters and win them over by the anticipated March primary.

"Unlike most of the other guys who plan to run, (Sanford) doesn't have to spend money to build his name ID," Connelly said, referring to TV ads, mailers and travel candidates must pay for in order to introduce themselves to voters if they're not already well-known. That is not a problem for Sanford, who served in three terms in Congress and two terms as governor.

"People know him. He is a brand name," said Shell Suber, a Columbia-based political consultant. But Suber concedes it's a "tarnished brand name" that could cost Sanford votes instead of gaining them.

"I still think he's got a shot. Everyone loves a comeback story, and he does forgiveness well," Suber said.

It could help, too, that Sanford is now engaged to Maria Belen Chapur, the woman with whom he had the affair.

"This isn't Eliot Spitzer in a hotel room with a hooker," Suber said, referring to the former New York governor who resigned in 2008 after the revelation he was a regular client of an escort service. "(Sanford) has gone through a lot to show he truly loves this woman and now he's going to marry her."

Also, the percentage of district voters who identify as social conservatives -- and would automatically rule out a vote for Sanford -- comprise a smaller part of the voting base than in the Upstate and other parts of the state.

"If Mark Sanford was from Greenville, we would not be having this conversation," Suber said.

Nonetheless, others think it's too early to even expect forgiveness, even when it comes to a native son like Sanford in a Lowcountry district that's far more receptive to Sanford's likely message of low taxes, limited government and entitlement reform than to social stances.

"People in South Carolina tend to be pretty forgiving, but it's still early at least for me," Connelly said. "That will be the thing to watch. Can voters get past (the affair)?"

Katon Dawson, former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party and a political consultant, said Sanford's campaign could suffer without the help of his former wife, Jenny Sanford, who played a pivotal role in his previous campaigns and is considered key to past successes.

"So much of the success of his campaigns was because of his wife, who was so engaged and so organized," said Dawson, who said he mostly worked with Jenny Sanford, not Mark Sanford, when issues arose that required help from the governor's office.

"I want to see how he runs a campaign without her," Dawson said.

While Jenny Sanford has been listed as a possible contender for the First District, a strategist working with Mark Sanford told CNN she would not run against him.

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