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Sanford's House Bid A Test Of S.C. Voters' Will To Forgive

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Sanford's House Bid A Test Of S.C. Voters' Will To Forgive

Sanford's House Bid A Test Of S.C. Voters' Will To Forgive

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow, South Carolina holds a special election for a congressional seat. This job opened when Senator Jim DeMint retired and a congressman, Tim Scott, was appointed to replace him. Now two Democrats and 16 Republicans are running for that seat in Congress, including the state's disgraced former governor, Mark Sanford.

From South Carolina, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Sanford is trying to stage the political comeback of a lifetime, one diner at a time. He greeted customers over eggs and grits at Page's Okra Grill, just outside Charleston in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

MARK SANFORD: I won't interrupt breakfast any more than I already am. But I'm out and about and would appreciate your consideration on Tuesday.

LOHR: Sanford says he was the most fiscally conservative governor in the nation, the first to reject federal stimulus money in 2009. But Sanford's personal life imploded four years ago when he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But he was actually in Argentina having an illicit affair with a woman who is now his fiancee.

Out campaigning in a casual gray jacket and khaki pants, Sanford acknowledges his mistakes and talks about humility and forgiveness.

SANFORD: There's an amazing reservoir of human grace out there that I didn't understand or fully comprehend until now.

LOHR: As we were talking, a voter interrupted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I just wanted to let you to know that your story is inspiring. Never give up.

LOHR: Sanford smiles broadly. He says he's apologized to voters and spent a lot of time soul-searching before friends encouraged him to run again.

SANFORD: People will give you a second chance. And then at some point you have to forgive yourself as well. And you have to stand back up and try and make a contribution wherever you can.

LOHR: Sanford is the front-runner. This was his district back in the mid-'90s, before he was governor. With more than a dozen other GOP candidates running, the race is hard to gauge. Several candidates have loaned themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars. And TV ads run constantly, telling voters how fiscally conservative they would be.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

JOHN KUHN: As your congressman, I'll fight to reduce wasteful spending, bring real budget cuts to Washington, and oppose any new spending program...

LOHR: That's former state senator John Kuhn, who loaned himself half a million dollars. He was campaigning in Bluffton last week.

KUHN: Thanks for coming to the event. It's really nice to have you here.

LOHR: Only one retired couple showed up, highlighting how tough it is to get voters' attention. Kuhn takes issue with Sanford's decision to run, and says voters deserve better.

KUHN: You ask your god for forgiveness, and that's great for him. But is that what this district in South Carolina wants for a congressman, someone who's really let them down and really been dishonest?

LOHR: Many voters say they haven't decided yet but there's at least some feeling of anyone-but-Mark Sanford. Frank and Cynthia Nappi retired to South Carolina from Connecticut about three years ago.

FRANK NAPPI: I don't think the public needs him. He had his chance and he blew it.

CYNTHIA NAPPI: Well, I almost think he's probably part of the good old boys system. He has not made a positive impression on me at this point.

LOHR: But back at the cafe outside Charleston, Chuck Diggle says the former governor is still the man.

CHUCK DIGGLE: Right now I'm still leaning toward Mark Sanford. I mean, I'm disappointed about what he did in his personal life. But he's still the most conservative of the bunch, as far as I'm concerned.

LOHR: As for Sanford, he says he made sure his former wife, Jenny, was not running before he jumped in. And he says he has the blessing of his four sons.

SANFORD: I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing in this chapter of life. And we'll see whether, you know, it comes to an end on Tuesday or not.

LOHR: No candidate is expected to get a majority of the vote. So that means a runoff next month.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston.

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