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Will Sanford's Race Turn Onto the Appalachian Trail?

Will Sanford's Race Turn Onto the Appalachian Trail?

By Scott Conroy - March 22, 2013

Just a few months ago, it would have sounded like the premise for a skit on Stephen Colbert’s show: A special election for a U.S. House seat pits a fallen governor against the Democratic standard-bearer -- who happens to be the satirist’s sister.

But in another demonstration that truth is stranger than fiction, a Mark Sanford vs. Elizabeth Colbert Busch showdown may be upon us next month in South Carolina’s 1st District.

Before the late-night comedians and political press are handed an off-year election gift in the form of this high-profile contest, however, Sanford first needs to win a GOP runoff against a low-key former Charleston County Council member named Curtis Bostic.

And that may not be easy.

On Tuesday, Sanford topped 15 other Republican candidates by winning 37 percent of the vote in a hotly contested primary to fill the seat vacated by recently appointed GOP Sen. Tim Scott. Bostic narrowly held off state Sen. Larry Grooms for second place with just over 13 percent of the vote. The runoff election takes place April 2.

In what is expected to be another low-turnout primary election, Sanford enjoys a slew of advantages over his largely unknown GOP opponent, not the least of which is his universal name recognition among Republicans in the conservative-leaning coastal district.

It is Bostic, however, who now has the most important campaign decision to make in this race: whether to spotlight Sanford’s infamous 2009 real-life soap opera, in which he claimed to be “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when instead he was involved in an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman to whom he is now engaged.

Despite Sanford’s large advantage over Bostic in Tuesday’s vote total, several South Carolina Republicans told RealClearPolitics they expect the runoff to be tight, particularly since a significant “anti-Sanford” vote will now be consolidated around one candidate.

A former Marine and Desert Storm veteran, who wears his Christian conservatism on his sleeve and is known for his extensive charitable work, Bostic did not target Sanford during the multi-candidate stage of the primary. Now, however, he has no choice but to directly take on the onetime rising star in the national Republican Party.

The question is: How far will he go?

Katon Dawson, who was chairman of the South Carolina GOP during Sanford’s governorship -- but who remains neutral in the 1st District race -- said Bostic needs to contrast himself with his better-funded and more experienced opponent in a way that goes beyond merely being the “anti-Sanford.”

“I’ve never seen a really clean campaign in South Carolina, and I would suspect that what people call ‘negative’ -- drawing comparisons and narratives -- will have to be done by Mr. Bostic,” Dawson said.

He categorized Sanford as “an easy target” in the race and suggested that Bostic’s most effective line of attack might be to raise the specter that the two-term governor’s scandalous past would make him vulnerable to national and state Democrats in the general election.

“I guarantee you they’re pulling for him,” Dawson said of Democrats’ rooting interest in the runoff. “Curtis Bostic is not someone you can put on the national news. CNN won’t cover it; NBC won’t cover it. With Mark Sanford, they’re going to pound the narrative like we’ve never seen because even if they don’t win the seat, which they wouldn’t, they could win the war by making him the face of the conservative movement with the baggage he’s got in the knapsack right now.”

According to multiple sources, South Carolina Democrats have been eyeing opportunities to muddy the waters in the runoff.

Asked whether he and his colleagues indeed were pulling for Sanford, South Carolina Democratic operative Phil Bailey demurred but signaled the tenor Colbert Busch likely will take in the general election.

“We like our chances with both candidates,” Bailey said. “They're both crazier than all get-out.”

Whether Bostic “goes there” with Sanford might depend on whether the former county council member’s internal polling indicates that the tactic would be effective.

While the other 15 Republicans who ran against Sanford in the primary’s initial stage largely targeted one another, rather than focus their attacks on the front-runner, a few levied thinly veiled reminders of the former governor’s personal transgressions -- a tactic that failed to launch them to a first- or second-place finish.

And though Sanford already has addressed his personal failings head-on (and repeatedly) during the race, there is evidence to suggest that GOP voters are more concerned about pocket-book issues than they are by the four-year-old scandal that led to his divorce. The URL for Bostic’s campaign website, after all, is StopSpending.com.

“The reality of the 1st Congressional District is that it is far more libertarian/fiscal conservative than, say, the Upstate,” said South Carolina GOP consultant Dave Wilson. “Mark Sanford's jaunt on the ‘Appalachian Trail’ is almost a non-issue down there among some groups.”

With less than two weeks till the runoff, Bostic has little time to determine his strategy.

State Republicans expect endorsements to be important indicators of momentum in the race over the next few days. Bostic is close friends with Scott, who held the 1st District seat for a single term before being appointed to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. While Scott has given no indication that he plans to make a formal endorsement, his implied support for Bostic could be a significant factor in the race.

Asked whether he expected Bostic to bring his opponent’s past transgressions to the forefront, Sanford spokesperson Joel Sawyer issued an implicit admonition to the rival candidate.

“Curtis Bostic ran TV ads, sent out lots of mail, and was quoted in the paper as recently as today talking about positive campaigning,” Sawyer said. “So our expectation would be that the campaign would continue in a manner that’s consistent with what he’s already laid out before voters.”

Sanford and Bostic are slated to square off in their lone one-on-one debate on March 28.

Though Sanford is the clear favorite to retake the House seat that he held from 1995 to 2001, the next few days are likely to be among the most nerve-wracking of his three-stage political comeback attempt. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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