Mark Sanford knows how his potential 2020 presidential bid might look to the rest of the country: More kamikaze mission than serious endeavor in even thinking about challenging President Donald Trump.

But to Sanford, the next 30 days will be about formulating how to return to a bygone Republican era when GOP voters largely agreed the national debt was spiraling out of control and government spending was a crisis that couldn't wait.

Under Trump, the conservative agenda for the past two years has prioritized other issues: immigration, security at the U.S-Mexico border, reforming the tax code and instating a more isolationist approach to foreign policy.

When the White House announced last week the federal deficit is projected to surpass $1 trillion this year — the only time in the nation's history the deficit has exceeded that level — few in Washington seemed worried.

Sanford, who is taking the next month to decide whether he'll mount a presidential challenge against Trump in 2020 over pocketbook issues, must now face his political reality about jumping into what could be a very lonely endeavor.

"It wouldn't be conjecture to say that it would be a very painful process," Sanford, the state's former governor and two-time congressman told The Post and Courier. "In the Trump era, grabbing that microphone could cost you. He hits hard."

A return to financial sanity

As a candidate, Trump promised to wipe out not only the deficit but also the entire federal debt, which has now surpassed $22 trillion. 

"Right now, it's not so clear that there are that many in the electorate that care about these fiscal issues, and that's because most voters don't think a lot about issues at all," said Hans Noel, an associate professor at Georgetown University who specializes in political parties, coalitions and nomination politics.

"They are most loyal to the leaders of their party," he said.

That helps define Sanford's target market, though: self-identifying fiscal conservatives, and then the "Never Trumpers."

He made that clear on MSNBC in one of several interviews Sanford gave as the notoriety of his potential run spread.

"Too many folks these days are in this gotta-bow-down-to-Trump-mode in the Republican Party," Sanford said. "That's a real problem. In doing so, we're not having a robust debate about ideas like the debt, like the deficit, like spending, that I think we ought to be having."

But balancing his spending issue discussion with Trump criticism could be an especially fine line for Sanford to walk as the Republican who was once a darling of the party, rising from obscurity in 1994 to win his seat in Congress with no previous experience but an anti-spending message.

During the 2016 election, Noel and his colleagues surveyed conservative voters to learn how other Republicans are perceived when compared with Trump. Their research found politicians who have taken a stand against Trump — even if they are otherwise very conservative — were described by voters as being more moderate or even liberal.

If he pursues a presidential run, no one will take odds that Sanford would win the party's nomination, but Noel said that might not be the point.

In the modern presidential nomination process, there have been only two serious challenges to presidential incumbents: In 1992, when Republican President George H.W. Bush faced off with Pat Buchanan, and in 1980, when Democratic President Jimmy Carter had to contend with Ted Kennedy.

Both incumbents went on to win their party's nomination but lost in the general election, partly because their primary challengers were able to point out weaknesses.

Kennedy, Noel noted, came pretty close since he came into the race with high name identification. 

"But Mark Sanford is not Ted Kennedy. He's not as well-known. He's not a giant in the party," Noel said.

If Sanford is known outside of South Carolina, it's for his most infamous political chapter: A 2009 extramarital affair while governor, in which he told an aide he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail" when he was, in fact, with his Argentine mistress.

To find out if voters outside of South Carolina could forgive for his decade-old infidelity, Sanford would need to travel to other early primary states to see if he can get traction or win delegates in primary contests or caucuses.

The first state he'd need to visit is Iowa, a state where Pew Research Center reports 89 percent of its conservative voters identify as Christian.

Iowa

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said Sanford's 2009 affair would haunt him on the campaign trail if he pursued a presidential bid.

"There are a number of Republicans here who don't really know that much about him, and there are ones that know him because of the Appalachian Trail. In that sense, some may dismiss it, but it's political baggage," he said. "And you can bet if he were the nominee that the Democrats would be talking about it a lot, and that's a problem."

Hagle said Sanford could find an opening if he's able to successfully and honestly address that part of his past and make a strong case that the nation has lost its way on fiscal issues. 

It's one of the few states Trump did not win in 2016 on his path to winning the Republican Party's nomination. Ted Cruz won the 2016 Republican caucuses with 28 percent of the tally. Trump finished second with 24 percent.

That's not necessarily an indicator that Sanford could win in Iowa.

He has to put in the effort on the ground just like anyone else, Hagle said, noting his best bet at getting in front of voters would be participating in the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in August, and getting in front of the Iowa GOP State Central Committee.

The biggest problem is Sanford's insistence on running as a Republican rather than an independent.

"If he were to say, 'Let's refocus the party,' that's all well and good, but it's a harder sell for him to do as a Republican because it means he's running against Trump. And if you run to challenge the incumbent, you're going to make some enemies along the way," Hagle said.

New Hampshire

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Jim Merrill, (not the former S.C. state lawmaker), who was Mitt Romney's former campaign manager in New Hampshire in 2008 and 2012, said Sanford might find a more receptive audience even if the New Hampshire GOP voters ultimately go for Trump in the end.

Merrill, a Manchester-based consultant who also ran Marco Rubio's 2016 New Hampshire campaign, describes Republicans in the state as focused and tight on keeping a lean state government.

Joe Sweeny, the spokesman for the New Hampshire GOP, put it this way: "We're a very frugal Yankee state."

Merrill said most GOP voters he knows would likely give Sanford a pass on his 2009 affair and would be more interested in his pitch for fiscal responsibility.

"If you put the time in here, it's not impossible to see those messages begin to resonate," Merrill said, noting the state is both easily networked and easily traveled.

Sanford could also find a built-in audience of like-minded anti-spending advocates. Chase Hagaman is director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on fiscal issues and concern about the nation's growing federal debt. 

He confirmed the group will be holding a candidate forum later this summer focused on economic and fiscal policy. They've hosted Sanford in the past.

"Voters in New Hampshire still care about fiscal issues," Hagaman said in an email. "There is an opening for fiscal and generational responsibility as a campaign theme."

Whether that same opening exists in South Carolina is another story. 

His home state

The toughest fight for Sanford, who last represented the coastal 1st Congressional District seat from 2013 until his GOP primary loss last year, might be right here in his home state. After announcing he was thinking about a presidential challenge to Trump, state GOP Party Chairman Drew McKissick issued a biting statement.

"The last time Mark Sanford had an idea this dumb, it killed his Governorship," he said. "This makes about as much sense as that trip up the Appalachian Trail."

Republicans in South Carolina would have to agree to hold a primary for Sanford to be on the ballot, but Gov. Henry McMaster in March told The Post and Courier he would welcome a Republican primary.

The governor's office declined requests for additional comment in light of Sanford's potential presidential run. The state GOP Executive Committee will take up the matter Sept. 7.

But there are Never Trumpers in South Carolina Sanford could speak to, and, from here on out, he can use the $1.35 million left over in his congressional account after his loss to Katie Arrington in the 2018 GOP primary for his potential presidential run, no matter what form it takes.

Sanford, for the next 30 days, says he is prepping and taking this public political deliberation one day at a time. He told The Post and Courier that during that period he will "absolutely" take a trip to Iowa or New Hampshire.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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