Recovering From Scandal, Mark Sanford Eyes Political Return

The former South Carolina governor made national headlines four years ago when he tearfully resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association because of an extramarital affair. He's now staging a political comeback, however, and is the frontrunner in a special election for his old House seat. Weekend Edition guest host Don Gonyea speaks to political blogger Brad Warthen about Sanford's prospects.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford is back. Mr. Sanford made national headlines four years ago when he resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair.

MARK SANFORD: And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a - what started as a dear, dear friend, from Argentina.

GONYEA: Wiping away tears, Mr. Sanford said on that day back in 2009 that forgiveness could take weeks, months and even years. Well, now he's hoping South Carolina voters have forgiven him enough to re-elect him to his old congressional seat and he's the frontrunner in the Republican primary which will be held on March 19th.

Brad Warthen is a political blogger and former editorial page editor of The State newspaper and he joins us from member station, WLTR in Columbia, South Carolina. Brad, welcome.

BRAD WARTHEN: Glad to be here.

GONYEA: So let's remind ourselves that before Governor Sanford's resignation, he was one of those rising stars in the GOP, right? He was talked about as a presidential or V.P. contender. Should we be surprised he's making a comeback, trying to make a comeback?

WARTHEN: No. You know, Mark Sanford's one of those guys who talks about how great the private sector is, but he never works in it. He made a little money back in the '80s and early '90s and pretty much has been running for office or holding office ever since then.

GONYEA: What was the Mark Sanford brand and how damaged is it?

WARTHEN: Put simply, he would say it's about limited government. I mean, when he made his big confession, really, the overriding issue that concerned me - and people in South Carolina at that time - was that he was the last governor in the country who was refusing the stimulus money. He was keeping $700 million from coming to a revenue-starved state that was having to shut down lots of parts of state government.

And so that was the brand. I mean, this is a guy who wants - in 2006, he vetoed the entire state budget. Of course he knew he was going to be overridden. It was a grand gesture, and that's very much in the mold of Mark Sanford.

GONYEA: Let's listen to the first ad for his congressional campaign. He addresses everything you just talked about and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL CAMPAIGN AD)

: Washington's math doesn't add up, and so for years, while many have talked, I've fought to do something about it. I've cut spending, reduced debt and made government more accountable. More recently, I've experienced how none of us goes 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. In that light I humbly step forward and ask for your help in changing Washington. I'm Mark Sanford, and I approve this message.

GONYEA: So what do you think? Is it effective?

WARTHEN: I think so. You know, Mark Sanford comes across really well. He makes a great impression portraying himself as a champion of limited government. That always clicks with people.

GONYEA: And as the frontrunner, do we read that as South Carolina's voters having forgiven and forgotten his past discretions?

WARTHEN: Well, you know, a great deal of it is name recognition, but, you know, after the scandal, he still had pretty good numbers, polling number, you know. He's a great soundbite guy and that still clicks well with the voters.

GONYEA: And is this a district where if he wins the primary he's pretty much assured a victory; that the special election is on April 2nd.

WARTHEN: Yes, ever since 1980 when Tommy Hartnett rode in on Ronald Regan's coattails in the first district, that's been a pretty much of a Republican district. Now in 2008, a Democrat actually came within a couple points, but that was another coattails situation. That was riding on Obama's coattails, and those are not going to be in operation next month.

GONYEA: And tell us quickly about the Democrat.

WARTHEN: The Democrat is Stephen Colbert's sister and my understanding is that the other person who's running for the Democratic nomination is pretty much a perennial candidate who probably does not have the support that she'll have.

GONYEA: Brad Warthen, thank you very much.

WARTHEN: All right. Thank you.

GONYEA: Brad Warthen is the former editorial page editor of The State newspaper in South Carolina. These days he's a political blogger. He spoke to us from member station WLTR in Columbia, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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Correction Feb. 23, 2013

A previous headline incorrectly named Mark Warner as the candidate. The audio of this story, as well as a previous Web version, also did not make clear that he resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association, not as governor.

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