Is South Carolina ready to take Mark Sanford back?

9:21 AM, May 7, 2013   |    comments
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford addresses supporters in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.
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(CBS NEWS) -- Nearly four years after watching his political reputation go up in smoke, Mark Sanford, South Carolina's former Republican governor, is trying to reclaim his place in the state's political landscape. 

But his ability to rise from the ashes of an infamous and widely mocked scandal will be tested Tuesday, when voters in South Carolina's first congressional district head to the polls to elect their new representative.

In 2009, then-Governor Sanford disappeared from South Carolina for four days with no explanation, leading his staff to tell reporters he'd gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, he'd gone to Argentina to visit a woman he'd been seeing (at the time, he was married to someone else), a fact to which he eventually admitted. Sanford was censured by the state legislature and gave up his leadership position within the Republican Governors Association, but ultimately served out the remainder of his term.

Now, more than two years after leaving office, he's running for his old SC-1 congressional seat against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch - a political newcomer and the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert -- in the hopes he can redeem himself with the people of South Carolina and kick-start his political career.

Even in the solidly red state of South Carolina, however, not everyone's ready to take him back.

"I think there's a large number of people around the state that would like to see Mark fade off into the sunset," said South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel, in an interview with "Mark is someone who's been consistent in his frugalness and his philosophical views on government, but I just don't know. I just don't know if it'll be enough. There are some people I think who would like him to go away. It's gonna be close."

Felkel found himself close to describing South Carolina's relationship with Sanford as one of love-hate, but he stopped himself short.

"I don't know that you could say love-hate -- because I don't know how much he's loved," he said.

Sanford, after all, was not the first choice among South Carolina Republicans: Members of South Carolina's Congressional Delegation originally got behind state Senator Larry Grooms, R-S.C., and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) declined to back Sanford after it came out he had an impending court date for having previously broken into his ex-wife's house. Now, according to Felkel, the party is tepidly supporting a candidate most Republicans in the state wouldn't mind seeing fade from the spotlight.

"I think they want to hold the seat. And Sanford is the nominee. And therefore they're going to wince a little [but] be supportive," Felkel said. "From a policy standpoint, they can hold their noses about the personal stuff."

But the personal stuff hasn't been forgotten. And some Republicans believe that a Colbert Busch win in the heavily red district wouldn't be the end of the world: She'd likely face another tough challenge in 2016, and Sanford, meanwhile, would be out of the game.

"If they lost this race, it's a seat Republicans could reclaim in two years," Felker said. "And it's a way to put a nail in the coffin of Mark Sanford in the meantime."

Democrats have been quick to seize on the negativity surrounding Sanford's history: Various Democratic groups - including the House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) -- have run television ads focusing on the 2009 incident, and they're aggressively mobilizing behind a candidate they think might have a rare shot at victory in a state that's reliably Republican.

"It's a dead heat. It really is. It's tight as a tick right now," said South Carolina Democratic consultant Tyler Jones, who is also an associate director of the South Carolina House Democratic Caucus. "Voters in this state frankly are tired of hearing about Mark Sanford, and seeing him on television, and the last thing they want is for him to represent them in Congress again."

Tyler argued that between voters' dislike for Sanford, and the strength of Colbert Busch's credibility as a "moderate, fiscal conservative" businesswoman, "that's giving a lot of Republicans some cover to vote for her."

Colbert Busch, however, is an untested political candidate, and she has no political record from which voters can gleam clues about how she'd govern if elected. She's also run a tightly controlled campaign, participating in only in one untelevised debate while turning down several additional appearances, and she has been slow to make definitive statements about critical issues like repealing Obamacare. (Colbert Busch has called Obamacare "problematic" and suggested she might repeal it, but she has not come down definitively on that question.)

According to Joel Sawyer, a Sanford campaign spokesman, the Democratic candidate is merely benefiting from the hundreds of thousands of dollars Democratic donors have poured into the race.

"She's been fairly thin with regard to substance," said Sawyer. "She's tried to couch herself as a moderate independent voice, but very liberal special interests have poured a very significant amount of money into getting her elected."

A major part of the Sanford campaign strategy has been to nationalize the race, painting Colbert Busch as a pawn of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic establishment. Sanford, in one of his less conventional moves, actually "debated" a cardboard cutout of Pelosi as a publicity stunt for his campaign. The bottom line, Sawyer argues, is that Colbert Busch is posing as something she's not: A moderate conservative who will stand up to the Democratic party.

"If she were legitimately a moderate she could point out some specific issues where she differed from" Pelosi and national Democrats, he argued. "The point is, she's not moderate."

Without a political record to examine, it's difficult for voters to know exactly what to expect from any untested candidate, Colbert Busch included. As BuzzFeed reported Sunday, questions to the candidate about how she'd differentiate herself from the Democratic establishment yielded little information.

"Let's wait till the 7th, [let's] get elected, and we'll sit down and we'll all talk to each other," Colbert Busch told reporters, per BuzzFeed. "We'll collaborate with each other, we'll work with each other."

An apparent boost in momentum suggests that Sanford's strategy has been working, at least to some degree. But the day before Election Day, he was still hedging his bets.

"I'm not going to make predictions," added Sawyer, about Sanford's prospects at victory. "We think that we've got some momentum working in our favor, but anytime you're outspent four-to-one on television, I think you're heading into Election Day as a little bit of an underdog."

"It's all about turnout," added Tyler. "I think the weather might be a factor, and I think that hurts him more than it hurts us. But you couldn't pay me to bet on this race right now."

A spokesman for Colbert Busch did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

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