COLUMBIA -- Former Gov. Mark Sanford says he wants to return to Congress to tackle the growing national debt, but first he is tackling his past.
Last week, the Republican debuted a TV ad where he spoke of a "God of second chances" and visited "The Today Show"' to explain how "our brokenness as human beings is our connection."
Disgraced by an affair and ethics charges in his final years as governor, political observers say Sanford is the acknowledged leader among 16 Republicans running in a March 19 primary to fill the vacancy created by Tim Scott's appointment to the U.S. Senate.
"If he winds up winning the whole shooting match, that one will go into forgiveness hall of fame," retired Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen said.
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Political scientists -- and some campaign officials -- think the GOP primary race really comes down to who can make a runoff with Sanford for the 1st District seat, which stretches from Charleston south along the Lowcountry coastline.
Sanford has name recognition and a legacy of fighting for leaner government that is now in vogue, experts said. Plus, he could convince people he is sorry for his past transgressions.
"He's always been good on TV," Thigpen said. "He can look into a camera and not look shifty-eyed."
Sanford, 52, has a wealth of political experience to develop a campaign, started with a request for redemption.
He spent six years in Congress from the 1st District that he wants to represent again before an eight-year run as governor. However, his final years as governor were marred by an affair with an Argentinian woman, now his fiancee, that ended his marriage and his having to pay $74,000 in ethics fines that led to his censure by the S.C. House of Representatives.
Sanford laid low for two years afterward. But he talked about a U.S. Senate run while at the Republican National Convention last year. Then, Scott's seat opened when he was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to replace U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned in December.
Sanford says supporters asked him to run again for Congress. But the timing raises questions. Is it too soon to attempt a comeback? Or as Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan put it: "Has he been out in the wilderness long enough to be rehabilitated in the minds of the voters?"
To Sanford, the timing question was answered by getting the blessings of his four sons and speaking with his ex-wife -- and ex-campaign manager -- Jenny Sanford.
Re-entering politics, Sanford has been quick to acknowledge the problems that ended his marriage, issuing religious-tinged messages about forgiveness.
Sanford's words are genuine, said campaign spokesman Joel Sawyer, who also was Sanford's spokesman during his last years as governor. "These are the answers coming from where he is coming from."
University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins said Sanford has been artful in not mentioning Jesus.
"He's not claiming to be a strong evangelical person," Tompkins said. "He's giving (voters) permission to vote for him even though (he has a past.)"
Attempts to reach Sanford were unsuccessful, but based on his interviews, Sanford thinks the importance of battling the rising federal budget deficit outweighs questions about his past misdeeds.
However, even in attempting to launch a new political career, Sanford keeps reliving his shortcomings, said Le Price, campaign manager for fellow GOP candidate John Kuhn, a former state senator.
"He's clearly on a forgiveness tour," Price said. "But he's not asked for forgiveness for the ethic violations."
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, have the best chances of landing next to Sanford in a GOP runoff, political watchers predict.
"All of the candidates would be conservative," said Limehouse, who is stressing constituent service as an issue. "But it's going to be who is going to answer my phone call and fix my problem."
And some warn a Sanford primary win could pose trouble for Republicans in a general election against expected Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of TV satirist Stephen Colbert. Limehouse said he should represent the GOP "because I don't have distractions."
Grooms received endorsements last week from a pair of fiscally conservative Republican U.S. representatives from South Carolina, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan, who said they remain on good terms with the former governor.
"This is not an anti-Sanford endorsement," Duncan said.
Mulvaney said the S.C. congressional delegation has developed close ties since he and three other freshmen were elected in 2010. "We want to find someone who fits this team, and that's Larry," he said.
Asked whether Sanford could work well with the delegation, Mulvaney said: "It's up to Mark."
Meanwhile, Scott's office said the now-U.S. senator has no plans to endorse a candidate, though congressional candidate Curtis Bostic's Twitter avatar is a photo of him embracing his former fellow Charleston County councilman.
Some political scientists say Sanford could receive the most votes in the Republican primary but lose in a runoff -- the fate of former Lt. Gov. Andrew Bauer in the 7th District GOP primary last year.
"It could happen," said Thigpen, who also suggested Sanford could win outright with such a divided field.
Sanford might be in the right place to have his past personal flaws forgiven and win office again, some say.
Thigpen and The Citadel's Buchanan say the Lowcountry coast has a libertarian streak that is unlike the more socially conservative Upstate.
"If you are asking people to forgive you, the 1st (District) is the best," Thigpen said.
Nonetheless, Sanford will face resistance from voters away from the coast and women, political scientists predict. Thigpen recalls speaking at a meeting where women were upset that Sanford had jetted off to see his lover in Argentina on Father's Day.
"The average male in Charleston will say, 'I almost got caught, too,' " Thigpen said.