Former Gov. Mark Sanford is just one of 16 Republicans seeking the 1st Congressional District seat, but he’s spending the most time in the others’ cross hairs.
Last week, former Sen. John Kuhn took the bluntest shot to date, airing a radio ad saying Sanford “made South Carolina the laughingstock of the nation, lied to you about term limits, visited his mistress on your dime and paid record South Carolina ethics fines.”
Kuhn also blasted Sanford during a forum, saying, “I’ve never cheated on my wife, and I’m not going to.”
Sanford seldom has risen to the baiting, though his campaign pushed back at a different Kuhn television ad regarding a 2003 filibuster, calling it “false on virtually every claim” as well as “desperate and intentionally misleading.”
Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said Sanford ranked first in the nation as a congressman and governor for his fiscal conservatism.
“In short, he has a record of doing what others can only talk about, so it’s no wonder folks are taking shots,” he said.
Scott Buchanan, a Citadel political science professor, has not seen independent polling, but expected Sanford to be among the top two vote getters when the March 19 primary votes are tallied.
Sanford began the race with the most name recognition and has raised the most money in donations to date.
“I think the real race at this point is who else is going to be in the runoff?” Buchanan said. “I think that is the real question.”
Sanford is a frontrunner even though his stump speech acknowledges his re-entry into politics is an unlikely twist, particularly so soon.
After serving three terms in Congress, Sanford served as governor from 2002-2010. In 2009, he left the state for Argentina to visit his mistress. When lawmakers and others began questioning his whereabouts, his staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Upon his return, Sanford tearfully confessed to the affair. His trip also focused new scrutiny on his travel, and in 2010, he agreed to pay $74,000 to settle 37 ethics claims. He did it on the same day his divorce from his wife Jenny was finalized.
Sanford has acknowledged he “failed miserably” in his personal life, but he has maintained he was innocent of any ethical wrongdoing. “It is disturbing that the Ethics Commission has chosen to judge me by a different standard than any governor over the last 30 years,” he said at the time.
While the past few years of Sanford’s term certainly gives his opponents plenty of fodder, one of the biggest issues in the GOP primary — curbing spending in Washington, D.C. — has been a constant theme of his political career.
And it has been his main talking point during the past two months. Sanford said unless the spending is curbed, Americans’ personal savings and way of life will end.
Kuhn is not alone on the attack. Other candidates have criticized him obliquely for “leaving his post,” a reference to his gubernatorial staff not knowing where he was during his 2009 trip to Argentina to visit his mistress.
State Rep. Andy Patrick’s campaign has accused Sanford of going on an “apology tour” during the current campaign.
Engineer Tim Larkin, one of several political newcomers in the GOP field, said he isn’t inclined to talk negatively about anyone, but Larkin said he got interested in running once he learned that Sanford planned to run.
“I view this race as the other people versus Mark Sanford,” Larkin said. “I’m not angry at him, but I don’t want him to be our representative.”
Other campaigns have tried to draw attention to reports that Sanford asked Jenny to manage his campaign, as she has in the past — even offering to pay her this time.
There has been a little mud tossed among the other 15. Kuhn’s campaign sent out a mailer last week asking, “Do you know the real Teddy Turner?”
Still, the current primary can be seen mostly as a referendum on Sanford, said Gibbs Knotts, chair of the College of Charleston’s political science department.
“Is he going to be able to make a comeback or not?” Knotts asked. “Have people forgiven him for what he did? With so many different candidates running, it’s muddied.
“It will become a little more clear in a runoff.”
Buchanan said the rest of the field is going after Sanford in part to make the case that they’re the best to take him on in the April 2 runoff — considered a virtual certainty since no candidate is expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote on March 19.
And candidates realize if they are fortunate enough to make the runoff, they will want to court supporters of the other 14 who didn’t.
“They don’t want to alienate the other guys’ supporters, because they might need them,” he said. “If they get into the runoff, they’re going to need them.”