Mark Sanford is asking South Carolinians for their forgiveness -- and their votes.
The disgraced former Republican governor, who quietly left office two years ago after a bizarre high-profile extramarital affair in 2009, is back on the ballot, running in a March 19 special-election primary to fill the House seat vacated by Tim Scott's December appointment to the Senate.
Whether the coastal South Carolina district's conservative Christian voting base overlooks his peccadillo, but not his track record of pushing spending cuts and limited government, is difficult to gauge. The campaign is only weeks old, and no independent polling has been conducted. But his attempted comeback is among the most intriguing political storylines to emerge this year and surely will be watched closely by other politicians felled by scandal.
"We've heard some people say that we're perfectly happy to forgive him, but your sins have consequences, and one of those consequences is, if we can't trust you with your family, can we trust you with our government?" said Danielle Vinson, chairwoman of the political science department at Furman University in South Carolina. "It's just a question of how many of them end up on that side of things, and I don't think we have any good way of knowing that."
Mr. Sanford this week debuted his first campaign TV ad, in which he mentions he has made "mistakes" in his personal life. On Tuesday, he admitted on NBC's "Today" show, "I have failed mightily."
"I've experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes, but in their wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it," Mr. Sanford says in his commercial.
In the highly religious state of South Carolina, a public show of contrition can be a "double-edged" sword, said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at South Carolina's College of Charleston.
"You've got a high number of fundamentalist Christians in the district, and they're going to be particularly bothered with some of Sanford's sins; but on the other hand, it's a religion and a group of people who do believe in forgiveness.
"I'm really fascinated to see whether this forgiveness ultimately wins out."
Mr. Sanford's public mea culpa is intertwined with a more traditional and potentially effective message: a pledge to bring fiscal responsibility to Washington.
"One place I didn't ever fail was with the taxpayer," he said on "Today." "If you look at my 20 years in politics, what you would see is a fairly remarkable consistency in terms of looking out for the taxpayer."
Mr. Sanford once was a rising star in the Republican Party who was whispered as a possible 2012 presidential candidate. But his reputation and career unraveled after he went AWOL for several days in 2009.
He initially told his staff that he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but instead secretly flew to Buenos Aires to visit his Argentine mistress -- a woman who now is his fiancee. When the truth quickly became public, he was ridiculed nationally. His wife soon filed for divorce and published a memoir describing the embarrassing ordeal.
Yet he refused to resign despite heavy pressure to do so, and has lain low since he finished his term in January 2011. But the opening of the South Carolina's 1st Congressional District -- a seat Mr. Sanford held from 1995 to 2001 -- presents perhaps the best opportunity for him to jump back into politics.
Emerging from the Republican primary isn't a given, as a whopping 16 names are on the ballot. Mr. Sanford's most formidable opponents are a collection of state legislators, including Sen. Larry Grooms and Rep. Chip Limehouse. Another candidate, Teddy Turner -- son of CNN creator Ted Turner -- has been running TV ads since last month.
A two-candidate runoff will be held April 2 if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
On the Democratic side, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of TV political satirist Stephen Colbert, is the early favorite to win her primary and presents a potentially competitive general election contest in a district Republicans typically dominate.
Despite Mr. Sanford's past political successes, he faces an uphill climb just to emerge from the primary, said Bruce Ransom, political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.
"I don't think he realizes how embarrassing that whole [adultery] episode was. He made the state a laughingstock of the nation," Mr. Ransom said. "I think perhaps he does not recognize the depth of the disenchantment with him for what he did."
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