Mark Sanford's South Carolina Comeback in Limbo, But Not Dead Yet

Sanford's made a lot of mistakes, but pundits not ready to give up yet.

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaks with reporters at Hay Tire & Automotive in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Monday, April 22, 2013. (Mic Smith/AP Photo)

Former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford speaks with reporters April 22 at Hay Tire & Automotive in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

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Mark Sanford's political comeback may not be over yet. True, the national pundits are moving the disgraced former Republican governor's race into the toss-up category and he did stand on the street and debate a cardboard cut out of Nancy Pelosi last week, but that doesn't mean he's finished.

Sanford has done what few scandal-laden politicos ever dare to do. He's relaunched a political career in the state where it all fell apart, and he's managed it largely without support from the national party.

[EXPERT: Mark Sanford 'Dying by a 1,000 Cuts' in South Carolina Race]

His transition back to politics has been seeped in more awkward moments than a comeback campaign should , but politicos back home aren't betting against the former governor.

"He's taken on some water, but I think he'll eke it out," says David Woodard, a veteran South Carolina GOP consultant." The simple fact is that this is not a very good way to take off, but I think he will probably win."

Sanford's career came crashing down in 2009 when the then-governor went missing for nearly a week and directed his staff lie for him as he traveled to Argentina to meet with a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Now Sanford is engaged to Maria Belen Chapur and the dust has seemed to settle enough for him to reenter public life.

Sanford won the GOP primary in April, but when the public learned he had trespassed his ex-wife's home to watch a football game with his son, it put his political career back on the line ahead of the special election for South Carolina's First Congressional District.

[SANFORD: I Was at Ex-Wife's Home to See Son]

 

"He's had a lot of bad headlines and self-inflicted wounds," says Kyle Kondik, a congressional campaign expert at the University of Virginia. "He's got to avoid doing more damage to himself now that we are a week away."

But while Sanford has fumbled, there is one thing that even a trespassing charge and a sordid past cannot change: the demographic makeup of South Carolina's First District, which is 75 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican. Mitt Romney won the District by 12 points in the November presidential election.

The latest Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling Survey shows Sanford more than 10 points behind his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch. But in a special election, when turnout is low and voters tend to be older, Kondik says Sanford will likely still have the edge against Colbert Busch. Furthermore, this is a district Sanford knows well. He represented the state's First District for six years from 1995 to 2001 before taking the reins as governor.

[WHISPERS: Internal Emails Reveal Bitterness Behind South Carolina Special Election]

"There is a reason he will win. These people know what they are getting. He has been their congressman before ," Woodard says. "It used to be that these scandals could be pretty fatal, but the Clinton scandal changed all that. Now people can separate the man from the job, the personal from the professional, and they are doing that in the First Congressional District."

With just seven days to go and the first debate against Colbert Busch scheduled for Monday night, Sanford has to appear humble on stage.

"You stay under the radar. You just do TV and hammer away with your direct mail," Woodard says. "He needs to not offend anyone tonight. He cannot say anything that could be taken as rude. What everyone will be thinking when he is on stage is that this is a male-female confrontation. If he comes across condescending or argumentative, that could really hurt him. A lot of women don't like him and trust him anyway."

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