Sanford looks to clear second hurdle to comeback

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faces a second hurdle this week in his quest for a comeback after his political career was derailed by scandal four years ago.

The former governor, trying to regain the now-vacant 1st District congressional seat he held for three terms in the 1990s, was the top vote-getter in a Republican field of 16 in the March 19 GOP primary. He faces former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic in Tuesday's runoff.

The winner faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, and a Green Party candidate in the May special election. The seat became vacant when Tim Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the resignation of Jim DeMint.

Sanford disappeared for five days while he was governor in 2009, telling his staff he was out hiking the Appalachian Trial. Later, he tearfully revealed at a Statehouse news conference he was in Argentina seeing a woman he later called his soul mate and to whom is now engaged.

Sanford, mentioned then as a possible presidential candidate, ended up divorcing his wife, Jenny.

Bostic says that behavior has left Sanford a compromised candidate who would give the Democrats a shot at taking back a district they have not held in more than three decades.

But it may be a long shot for a Democrat to win. The district leans strongly Republican. Mitt Romney took South Carolina by 10 points last year and carried the conservative district along the state's southern coast by 18 percentage points.

Just how much the issue of Sanford's past weighs on voters' minds may become clearer Tuesday. With 16 candidates in the primary field and Sanford's name recognition and deep campaign funds, his first-place finish did not come as a surprise.

College of Charleston political scientist Jeri Cabot said she expects Sanford to win.

"Other Republicans who are undecided just might vote with the name recognition. Sanford survived, and he has raised the money," she said, adding voters tend to be forgiving of the romantic affairs of their elected officials.

In addition, "lying to his staff and being away from his office - what the whole impeachment debate was circling around - voters appear to be forgetting that," she said.

Before leaving office, Sanford avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for the affair. He also paid what is still the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina at $70,000.

Since the primary, six GOP primary candidates have endorsed Sanford, while only one has endorsed Bostic. But Bostic campaigned last week with former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and a group of 40 local clergy endorsed his campaign.

"Many local clergy are taking a stand and saying that issues like the sanctity of marriage, personal morality, honesty and integrity are still virtues they expect in their representatives," said the Rev. Greg Smith, the pastor of Grace on the Ashley Church in Charleston.

Outside the auditorium where the two candidates debated last week, Barbara Boilston, a 49-year-old paralegal from Charleston, was holding a Sanford sign. She said the former governor, known for being frugal with taxpayer dollars, is the best man for the job.

"When you saw what he did in Congress, especially now with the economy so bad, no one can do what Mark Sanford can do," she said.

As for his indiscretions, "I believe he has come full circle," she said. "I believe he has found peace with God. If God forgives, I forgive, and we should go forward and put this man back in office."

But Tim Bryant, 45, who runs a counseling center in Summerville, S.C., said Bostic has the better fiscal record based on his service on county council.

"The last thing is the trust thing," he added. "When Sanford did admit what he had done, he didn't admit it in a way that said he had changed his mind. He said I did it and I'm sorry and I met my soul mate."

What, Bryant wondered, happens if Sanford meets a third soul mate?

"How can you trust someone who breeches the sanctity of marriage to uphold the Constitution?" he asked. "If Curtis wins there is a victory song we can sing: `Amazing Grace how sweet the sound.' That's pretty good for our South Carolina conservative voters. If Sanford wins, they will be singing `Don't Cry for Me Argentina.'"

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