Mark Sanford Mounts His Comeback

The former governor is one of 16 candidates in today's SC primary.

ByABC News
March 18, 2013, 6:35 PM

March 19, 2013 -- Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor whose career imploded when it turned out that what he said was a Appalachian Trail hiking trip was actually a visit to his mistress in Argentina, began his return to politics with phone calls to local Republicans.

"Mark called me a couple times," said Beaufort County GOP Chairman Jerry Hallman, recounting the steps Sanford took before deciding to become a political candidate again. "He really worked hard at that. He called a heck of a lot of people."

Today, Sanford will attempt a political redemption of epic proportions.

Nearly four years after the bizarre press conference at which he revealed he was having an affair with an Argentine woman -- and that he had not, as staff had been told, left to hike the Appalachian Trail -- Sanford is running for the Charleston-area First District House seat he won in 1994 and held until 2001.

The former governor will compete against 15 other Republican candidates in today's primary, staged to fill a seat vacated when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jim DeMint in the upper chamber.

South Carolina insiders expect Sanford to win, but with no public polling available, their opinions are informed by internal polls conducted by campaigns, which show Sanford winning with support just under 30 percent -- although ABC News has not seen the polls and does not consider candidates' commissioned surveys to be reliable.

Sanford entered the race asking for forgiveness

"I have 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," Sanford said in his first TV ad in the district.

Headlining the crowded GOP field competing against Sanford are Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul Ted Turner; former Charleston County Council member Curtis Bostic; state Sen. Larry Grooms; state Rep. Chip Limehouse; and former state senator John Kuhn.

Even if Sanford passes this first test, the task might not be so easy.

"I don't think it's a referendum on Sanford's marital issues," one Republican operative in South Carolina told ABC News. "The biggest thing I hear consistently is, 'We don't care about that, but he did abandon the state.'"

Nor will the journey end today. Sanford will likely face a primary runoff election on April 2, as mandated if no candidate surpasses 50 percent, before the general election on May 7. Sanford could face off against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of Stephen Colbert and one of two Democrats vying for the seat, which is considered a Republican stronghold.

But South Carolinians may provide Sanford with enough forgiveness to allow him an unprecedented political comeback.

After all, in the state's January 2012 presidential primary, South Carolina Republicans overwhelmingly sided with another former GOP star who fell from grace after a scandal over marital infidelity: Newt Gingrich carried the state with 40 percent of the vote -- even if Mitt Romney won Charleston, where Sanford is asking for votes.