Mark Sanford acts as if he enjoys the fight.
He stood on a small stage Monday night across from his electoral rival in the race to represent South Carolina’s 1st District in Congress, and he waited for the hammer — the inevitable question about his…dalliance — to drop. But his nerves did not betray him. He was clear and precise. He spoke casually in an easy drawl, never forgetting to smile, never letting his opponent under his skin.
Mark Sanford is good. Very good.
Listening to him run through the conservative Christmas list — block grants, premium support, vouchers, individual accounts — it's easy to imagine what might’ve been. Instead of a plain, wooden lectern in front of a drab curtain, it would have been a grand auditorium. Instead of a political neophyte on the other side of the stage, he would have faced a collection of governors and legislators — and one pizza magnate.
Way back in 2009, when asked about a run for the White House in 2012, Sanford gave a classic non-answer: "Is it a plan? Absolutely not. Is it a likelihood? Absolutely not. But I've learned that you never say guaranteed on tomorrow when you don't know tomorrow.”
Of course, this was before the fall. The confession. The teary-eyed apology.
Still, if that were all, the fine citizens of South Carolina might have been inclined to forgive and forget. In December, the Palmetto State’s venerated Senator Jim DeMint announced he would retire in order to lead the Heritage Foundation, and Congressman Tim Scott was elevated to replace him. That left vacant Scott’s seat in the 1st Congressional District, which follows the state’s southern coast from Charleston down to picturesque Beaufort, Sanford’s hometown.
Sanford announced his candidacy for the seat on January 16 and, with the help of his high name recognition, emerged from a crowded field to clinch the Republican nomination on April 2. But since then it’s been, to adapt a quote, just one damned thing after another.
Maria Belen Chapur, Sanford’s onetime Argentine mistress and current fiancée, made a surprise appearance at his primary night victory party, standing onstage next to Sanford’s visibly uncomfortable sons. A few weeks later news broke that Sanford’s ex-wife is suing him for trespassing at her home in violation of their divorce settlement. Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee, reportedly “blindsided” by the development, decided to pull their support. Sanford took out a full-page ad in the Charleston Post & Courier to tell his side of the story, and included his cell phone number for voters to call in case they “have further questions.” An earlier poll of the race showed the candidates neck and neck, within the margin of error, but a new survey taken between April 19 and 21 now gives Sanford's Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a 9 point lead. Because Colbert Busch declined to engage in more than one public debate (wouldn’t you?), Sanford was reduced to standing on the sidewalk and lobbing questions at a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi.
The phrase "car wreck" doesn't come close to describing the situation. It’s more like a head-on collision between a clown car and a zoo transport vehicle filled with rabid baboons. Just when the dust begins to settle, dozens of concussed harlequins and terrified primates pour onto the asphalt and begin pummeling each other in an all-out brawl. Passers-by on South Carolina's I-95 can only turn and gawk.
When Sanford does get the chance to debate, as he did last night, he does well. His opponent? Not so much.
Pushed to specifically say whether she would support the Senate’s pending immigration reform bill, Colbert Busch giggled her way through an answer: “I would like to look at it, obviously, in detail, because I’ve never been in politics. But I would definitely support what I’ve heard about the bill.”
On what would seem to be a knockout issue — Sanford’s infamous hike on the Appalachian Trail — Colbert Busch took a swing, but it was unsteady, rambling, and (bizarrely) in response to a question about sequestration:
When we're talking about getting our fiscal house in order, we need to look at everything, from cutting spending to what are our costs. So during the time when we're having all this fiscal spending, fiscal cutting, and back to the days where everybody had a furlough in the state, everybody was losing their jobs and we were pulling our belts in, when we talk about fiscal spending, and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose.
Sanford responded deftly, though some might suspect not entirely honestly: "I couldn't hear what she said…What was the question?"
Later in the debate, a moderator put the question in a different context: "Governor Sanford, when you were in Congress, you voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and to impeach President Clinton for an extramarital affair. Would you vote those ways again?"
Sanford: "Well, I would reverse the question to you. And I would say this: Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake that he made in his life?"
The idea of redemption, of second chances, is woven into the fabric of Sanford’s campaign. But voters will only extend forgiveness up to a certain line. One week from today, we’ll find out on which side of that line Sanford stands.