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.

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“The NBC affiliate comes down from Washington,” said Sanford, finally, “and their angle is, you know—you’ve got a woman problem. I say—What? Come with me. Come with me for the day.” He laughed as he walked over to meet some soldiers walking around Beaufort in fatigues. “The national media decide what their story is.”

The real story, as designed by the Sanford campaign, is this: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is trying to buy the seat. Colbert Busch’s affable promise to work with both sides is a cover story. The message is scrawled on wooden planks that dot the roads from Charleston to Beaufort, in black spray paint—“Sanford Saves Tax $” and “Sanford: Boeing = Jobs” and “Say No to Pelosi’s $1 Million.” At Molly Darcy’s, a Charleston bar where Sanford volunteers congregate after work, the first sign is leaned against a fence, partially obscured, making it read simply, religiously, “Sanford Saves.” The handwriting is as about as crisp as the ones held by cows on those Chick-fil-A “Eat Mor Chikin” ads. They’re supposed to recast the Sanford campaign as a grass-roots crusade, and they work.

“We gotta stop Pelosi,” said Wayne Baker, a retired propane salesman, when he got his chance to meet Sanford in Beaufort. “Hey, I’ve been through a divorce. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. If it don’t, you move on, you make yourself a better person. He did his thing. He didn’t hide it—he came out in public. The way he did that, I think people got more trust in him.”

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Baker looks at my notebook and tape recorder. “You’re in the media, so I’m gonna say some things. Do you know why some of the best people don’t run? They got a background. They got stones in the backyard you can dig up. But he’s already come out with his girlfriend. You can respect that.”

Sanford ended his Beaufort trip on the third floor of an office building, on a pleasant porch overlooking the Candice Glover parade. A Republican donor, who keeps intermittently forgetting that I’m a reporter and thanking me for “everything you’re doing for the governor,” whips out an iPhone and shows me the sort of thing that’s “winning this thing in social media.” It’s just a picture of Nancy Pelosi in Joker makeup. Sanford hangs onto every fiber connecting Colbert Busch to national Democrats, from her union support to the donations coming in through the progressive online donation bundling site, ActBlue. “Somebody told me that Elizabeth Warren, in her race, received half of her funding from ActBlue,” Sanford informs reporters on Monday. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, I just heard it.” The point: “Be wherever you are. Don’t be stealthy.”

In other states and campaigns, Democrats like Colbert Busch have threaded the needle. They’re not like those other Democrats, the liberals, the ones you can’t trust. Colbert Busch attempts to do this by inserting some reference to business experience in whichever part of the sentence it may be grammatical. Sanford’s omnipresent radio ad hits the Democrat for theoretically favoring “Obamacare, economic stimulus, raising the debt ceiling.” That’s the kind of district this is—a place where being willing to raise the debt ceiling is a threat to decent people. On Monday, after she finishes a friendly visit to a black barbershop in the north Charleston suburbs, I ask Colbert Busch under what circumstances she’d raise the thing.

“I’m a businesswoman, OK?” she says. “Twenty-five years. Before you do anything, before you make any changes, you go in—it’s very basic, here’s my operations cost, here’s how much revenue I can bring in. If my costs are too high, I have too much waste, I’m doing duplicative work, I need to address this first. Until that gets addressed you can’t deal with anything else.” Does that mean no debt ceiling hike without spending cuts? Colbert Busch holds up her hands, as if she’s weighing bushels on a scale. “You have to get your cost under control, right? You have to get your fiscal house in order. At the same time you’re cutting your waste, you’re watching your spending, you prioritize your dollars over”—left hand—“here. What happens when you’re prioritizing your investment? You bring this”—right hand—“under control.”

Sanford’s answer is simpler: He doesn’t want to raise it. On Monday, he stumps in more random, friendly locations with Republicans who’ve endorsed him. At a diner, former Gov. James Edwards warns that a loss here might lead to the loss of the Republican House, which would let President Obama become “a dictator.” State Rep. Chip Limehouse, one of the Republicans who lost the primary to Sanford, nods along.

“It’s a battle for the soul of the country,” he says. “If we lose the House, we’ll lose America.”

 “Then it’s all over,” says Edwards.

Nearby, Sanford stands in front of TV cameras and talks about the polling that shows him, finally, inching ahead of Colbert Busch. People made fun of him when he “debated” a cardboard cut-out of Nancy Pelosi. But had it worked?

 “You know,” says Sanford, grinning, “a lot of my friends in the local media circles said I actually won that debate.”

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