Will Enough South Carolinians Buy Mark Sanford’s Nice-Guy Routine?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 6 2013 4:44 PM

Charm, Offensive

South Carolina’s controversial Mark Sanford is trying to “nice guy” his way to an election victory.

Mark Sanford campaigns in Charleston, S.C., in April.
Mark Sanford campaigns in Charleston, S.C., in April.

Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images

MT. PLEASANT, S.C.–When people recognize Mark Sanford—this happens extraordinarily often in South Carolina—he notices. He notices the contractor waiting in his car, or the woman shopping for lettuce, or the student who looks up from his phone with an oh-it’s-that-guy expression. At a tire store in this Charleston suburb, part of the 1st Congressional District that Sanford wants to represent, he makes the circuit of a waiting room, issuing his icebreaker again and again.=

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“Can I be rude,” he asks, “and say hello?”

When a voter lifts a camera phone to take a photo, Sanford knows, and he spins around to take charge. “If you’re going to take a picture,” he says, “can I be in it?” If this person is merely a gawker, visiting from Florida or Illinois, Sanford smiles and hands over his business card—“if you have any family in the district, they can call me.” If he might know one of Sanford’s sons, the candidate whips out his white iPhone and calls his son for an impromptu chat. If the person makes a joke, Sanford bends his knees and guffaws at the funniest thing he’s ever heard.

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This was how Sanford spent the final weekend of his campaign for Congress, a meet-cute scene repeated ad infinitum across the district. He’s done this for nearly five months, and it’s gotten easier—instant public affirmation and forgiveness for his trespasses in real time. To win back the congressional seat he held in the 1990s, to be a distinguished gentleman who can once again decry the federal debt and the welfare state, he must single-handedly win over the people who—let’s be honest—don’t want to elect a Democrat unless they’re desperate. So he keeps talking.

“It’s a blessing,” said Sanford on Saturday, as he walked his home turf in Beaufort, S.C. “I’ve been to a place in life wherein people didn’t want to get pictures of me. It was a very quiet spot. I spent a year on our family farm in northern Beaufort county, which is half an hour up the road—a quite incredibly introspective year.”

Beaufort had been taken over in celebration of Candice Glover, an American Idol contestant who’d made it to the final three, thus earning a taped-for-TV parade and concert. Sanford adapted immediately, posing next to a pro-Candice T-Shirt (“The Low Country’s Idol”) and greeting people with a chipper “Happy Candice Day!” Sanford never appreciated the grip-and-grab-and-grip-some-more side of politics until he’d walked away from it all on the “Appalachian Trail.”

“If you’ve been in politics,” he said, “you have people who want to take their picture with you, but it was very different. I love people, I’ve always loved people, but it was the kind of thing you had to do.” But now: “I was at a thing with my boys. We were trying to get into a football game. It was one of those things where it was incredibly elongated by people who wanted to take pictures.” Sanford grins at the memory of his bored, irritated kids. “I said guys, you don’t get it. This is an incredible blessing.”

Many voters here—most of them, possibly—are in the mood to bless him. Mitt Romney won this district by 18 points, but that might even undersell how Republican it is because African-Americans who voted for Barack Obama are harder to turn out in any special election.

Elizabeth Colbert Busch, inevitably referred to in national news as “the sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert,” is a business development guru who’d once donated to Sanford. If you’re ashamed of Sanford, she’s your tolerable alternative. Her radio ad played incessantly on conservative talk radio chides Sanford for voting against dredging the port of Charleston because… well, you know.

Mark Sanford had a better use for our tax dollars. He used taxpayer money to be with his mistress in Argentina.

Colbert Busch said this to Sanford’s face, almost—in their sole debate she reminded everyone that his Argentina trip was “personal.” Nobody else will get in his face about it, not even after his ex-wife Jenny filed a trespassing complaint against him, not even after voters learned Sanford would have to be in court two days after the election. When an NBC producer asked him about this, Sanford walked from female voter to female voter to "try to find a woman who doesn't like me.” When I caught up to him in Beaufort, he was still bristling.

“The NBC gal who was with us earlier,” he said, “she—”

Sanford was cut short, because a real-life female voter was interrupting him, asking for a photo. For three minutes I waited as Sanford posed and small-talked and posed some more. Eleven different groups of people, mostly women, took home Sanford snapshots. The only dissonance came from a woman who quickly ruined the picture by making “bunny ears” over Sanford’s head and sprinting away.

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