CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose political career was derailed four years ago because of his affair with an Argentine woman, is attempting an improbable comeback.
Once mentioned as a potential 2012 GOP presidential contender, the 52-year-old Republican announced Wednesday he will run for his old congressional seat in his home district along the South Carolina coast. Sanford, a penny-pinching conservative long before the tea party movement, said he is done apologizing for the affair and wants to restore "fiscal sanity" to Washington. He believes voters are ready to give him another shot in office.
"I think what they are most focused on is not the fact I have made a mistake and apologized and have tried to do right in my life since. What they are focused on is their pocketbook and their wallet," Sanford told The Associated Press.
But some have said the affair will be difficult for Sanford to shake. After all, he disappeared from the state for five days in 2009, telling his aides, who told the media, that he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
All along, he was in Argentina. When he returned, Sanford confessed to the affair in a tearful news conference and later called Maria Belen Chapur his "soul mate." They couple are engaged and plan to marry this summer.
"He probably will have to apologize at public functions and then talk about what he's learned about himself," said Jeri Cabot, a political scientist from The College of Charleston. "It's still going to be an issue because you're asking people for their vote."
Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard said voters are generally forgiving. He noted that when Sanford, while still governor, apologized to a women's Republican club in Greenville, "they were very tearfully embracing him."
But running again for office may be different.
"The question is whether or not you trust him to be your representative after that," Woodard said.
Sanford represented the 1st District for three terms in the 1990s. The seat became vacant recently when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to fill the unexpired Senate term of Jim DeMint, who resigned.
Sanford is known for his tight-fisted ways. When first running for governor in 2002, he once boasted of sleeping on a cot in his office to save money and later brought squealing and defecating pigs to the Statehouse to make a point about pork barrel spending in the state budget.
But his fiscal conservatism was also questioned when The Associated Press examined his travel expenses as governor, including an economic development trip to South America in which he had a romantic rendezvous with Chapur.
Donna McCaskill, a Republican voter from Mount Pleasant, said she didn't think Sanford's past problems will be an issue.
"If Bill Clinton and Marion Berry can come back from the dead, anybody can come back," McCaskill said, referring to the former president tarred by a sex scandal and the former Washington, D.C., mayor who remained active in city politics after serving time on federal drug charges.
"We've seen great instances of Democrats coming back, I don't see why Republicans can't come back, too," she said.
Before leaving office, Sanford avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for the affair. He also paid what is still the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina at $70,000.
His tearful confession, though, cost him his marriage to his then-wife, Jenny, who was also his closest political confidant and campaign manager.
She later wrote a tell-all book about their relationship, and flirted with the idea of running for the 1st District seat. But the mother of four boys with Mark Sanford scrapped those plans this week, saying being at home with family was more important than running for Congress.
Gov. Sanford spent his last 18 months in office traveling around the state, asking for forgiveness.
"The apology tour, if you want to call it that, is over. All you can do is say I'm sorry. But at some point, you have to lift up your head and start moving and I'm at that point," he said.
Sanford has the instant name recognition and could, if he gets permission from donors, tap into $1.1 million he has remaining in his gubernatorial campaign fund.
The district reaches from the sea islands with million-dollar oceanfront homes northeast of Charleston to southwest along the coast to the gated communities of Hilton Head Island, with its many Yankee transplants. When Sanford ran in the 1990s, the district reached into more conservative Horry County, but that area has been split and is now part of another district.
Teddy Turner, the son of media magnate Ted Turner, has said he will seek the GOP nomination in the district. Several state lawmakers have also announced plans to run, although the official filing for the race doesn't open until Friday. The primary is March 19.
South Carolina voters haven't had much of an appetite for political comebacks for officials who make headlines for a faux pas or controversy. Former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer couldn't overcome his personal troubles with speeding, a plane crash and other controversies to win the governor's office or a congressional seat, and former Gov. David Beasley's couldn't shake his support for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome when he ran for office again.
Gov. Nikki Haley, another tea party favorite, said she wasn't surprised Sanford was getting back into politics.
"He is someone who is very involved in policy and has always loved politics. This is going back home for him, his old congressional seat," she said.
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