In front of the bright TV lights, everything fell back into place for Mark Sanford, as if he’d never been gone.

The shame, the jokes and the whispers behind the biggest meltdown in the state’s colorful history suddenly seemed to be cleansed away.

Two of his sons were with him. So was his Argentine fiancee, Maria Belen Chapur. The Republican faithful were there too.

It has been, Sanford said, “an amazing journey.”

By the calendar, it’s officially taken Lowcountry Republicans two years, two months and 21 days to forgive their nationally ridiculed “Luv Guv.”

That’s how much time Sanford spent in political purgatory between his last hours as South Carolina’s nationally disgraced chief executive and his win Tuesday in the 1st Congressional District GOP primary runoff.

His convincing 57 percent to 43 percent victory over former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic also means Sanford is a step closer to leaving behind the obligatory questions of whether he can be trusted, as exit polls showed most of his supporters didn’t care so much about his past.

Still, his recent good fortune doesn’t mean that his sin will ever fully recede.

“At some level, it’s scar tissue that’s going to be with me until the day I die,” he said.

How did he do it?

Few stories in politics mirror Sanford’s rise, crash and recovery.

In 1994, as a total unknown, he ventured into political life with a Wall Street and real state background and near zero political experience.

He branded himself the anti-spend candidate and won coastal South Carolina’s 1st District seat in Congress — the office he now seeks again.

He was young then, just 34, with prep-school good looks and politics rooted in Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The future looked promising — and was promising — at least until June 2009.

That’s when Sanford went on national TV in a rambling news conference, one where he tearfully confessed to shocked South Carolinians that he had not been hiking the Appalachian Trail, as his staff had said, but instead had quietly gone to Argentina to meet his “soul mate.”

Sanford served out his remaining term but acknowledged the damage he had done, and that his future public life was probably over.

“I learned you never say never in life,” he said as his final days in office wound down. “At this point, I don’t see it. Period.”

But then a door blew wide open.

If you saw Sanford on the Republican primary trail in the past few weeks, you might have mistaken him for a winter tourist who had missed the boat to Fort Sumter.

He often wore khaki pants (stained and worn day after day), a button-down shirt and a gray zippered fleece as he walked unannounced into small businesses, such as Berlin G. Myers Lumber in Summerville, Sticky Fingers in Mount Pleasant and Farley’s Barber Shop in Hanahan, Berkeley County’s political gossip hub.

He would make small talk with small groups of voters that eventually turned toward the problems in Washington.

“My belief has been the bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes,” Sanford said.

It’s a strategy that has worked for him several times before. He has run for Congress three times before and for governor twice. He has never lost.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Republican voter Charlene Bunch, who saw Sanford at the Bear E Patch diner in West Ashley, as he walked from table to table.

Jumping back in

Sanford’s campaign started stirring the first week of December, after tea party favorite Jim DeMint abruptly announced that he was quitting the U.S. Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to serve the next two years on DeMint’s term.

As Republicans weighed whether to run for the seat — ultimately 16 would do so — a main storyline took shape: Was this Sanford’s chance for a comeback?

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who had served as chief of Sanford’s gubernatorial staff, urged him to run, saying his longstanding message of fiscal restraint fit the times. Family members said things quickly fell into place as he reached out to his former supporters.

“He was like a caged rat when he was not in politics,” said Sanford’s younger sister, Sarah Sanford, who worked on Sanford’s original 1994 campaign for the U.S. House, about his gauging his chances.

“He could see it all happening,” she said of the recent fighting over budgets and sequestration in Washington, “and he couldn’t do anything about it.”

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ally of Sanford from their days in the House, also counseled him to get in the race.

“I said, ‘This is an opening. These jobs don’t come open a lot. If you have the desire to get back in, now is the time to do it.’ ”

Graham is also quick to defend Sanford and his conduct, saying the $74,000 state ethics fine he paid for 37 violations — the largest in South Carolina history — as a result of his Argentine travel deception doesn’t compare to former President Bill Clinton’s covering up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton was “mucking with the evidence and witnesses in a trial,” said Graham, who led the Republicans’ impeachment effort in 1994. “Mark’s failings were Mark’s personal failings.”

Sanford announced his candidacy in mid-January, and his first TV commercial referred to “a God of second chances.”

Jolting Jenny again

It had to be one of the more awkward moments in the long, colorful history of Lowcountry politics.

As the race took shape, Sanford’s ex-wife Jenny Sanford was rumored as a possible 1st District candidate.

The couple had divorced in March 2010, and political bloggers salivated over the potential of two celebrity exes battling it out for a seat in Congress.

In late December, Sanford drove to Jenny’s Sullivan’s Island home to ask if she was going to run.

When she said no, he switched gears and asked her if she was interested in managing his campaign, just like she had done during his previous forays into politics.

She knew how campaign mechanics worked and knew his brand.

Her answer: “I’m sitting this one out,” Sanford said, opting to paraphrase what he said was her response.

Formula and the future

On the campaign trail, most Republican voters, including the GOP’s vital retiree demographic, didn’t take the bait on Sanford’s past, choosing his no-frills branding instead.

“Bill Clinton denied everything,” said Republican Mary Idleton, who watched as Sanford worked the Tea Room at St. Paul’s in Summerville. “At least (Sanford) admitted it.”

She described Sanford as a “great governor.”

Sanford said voters were more interested in his Washington experience and his anti-tax message. His personal life “just isn’t part of the conversation,” he said, “because it’s been vetted so many times over.”

Not all Republicans were enamored. Charleston County Republican Samm McConnell heard Sanford talk recently at a meeting of the Sea Island Republican Women and listened while Sanford talked of Washington spending run amok.

“I talked a lot about that stuff 20 years ago, but in essence, the platform wasn’t burning then,” he said. “The platform is now burning.”

Afterward, McConnell said Sanford was more show than substance.

“I think he’s awful,” said McConnell, who originally supported Chip Limehouse in the race and is a brother of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. “The state is much worse off because he was here.”

If Sanford is elected to Congress, he said he may return to his habit of sleeping on the floor in his D.C. office, which he did in the 1990s, though at 52 years of age he doubts it is something he would do for long.

And still there is the hurdle of Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Green Party candidate Eugene Platt in the final election to fill the seat May 7.

Even though the district leans heavily Republican — Mitt Romney won 58 percent of the vote in 2012 — the honeymoon that goes with winning the primary could be short-lived.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, widely considered the dean of Southern political pundits, said Sanford’s return means more to late-night comedians than it does on the national stage.

“Maybe the people of South Carolina’s 1st District are willing to send him back to Congress,” Sabato said, “but he’s considered a punch line in most of the rest of the country.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.