Sanford is frontrunner in S.C. House race, but says political return 'humbling, difficult'

FILE: February 4, 2010: Then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

FILE: February 4, 2010: Then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.  (REUTERS)

South Carolina's unpredictable political universe is now in full orbit with a special election next month that features 18 congressional candidates including a former governor and two first-timers with celebrity last names.

That former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford is an early favorite for the seat he held from 1995 to 2001, despite having had an extra-marital affair while in office, is no surprise. 

The open seat is in the conservative 1st congressional district, in largely conservative South Carolina. Furthermore, only Sanford appears to have the kind of political name recognition to raise enough money over such a short period. 

"We've got a tight time frame, and Sanford's name ID allows him to be the frontrunner," said Republican strategist Adam Temple, who has worked for South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and on Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

Sanford told FoxNews.com this week he's so far been humbled by the experience, with everybody from fellow state Republicans to everyday voters appearing ready to give him another shot at elected office.

"On one level it's been difficult," he said. "You don't know what the reaction is going to be. But I'm humbled at all levels."

Still, Sanford thinks the combination of his elected-office history as a fiscal conservative and Washington's debt and spending problems puts him in a good position to win.

"A state Republican told me, 'Mark, this is right in your wheel house,' " Sanford said.

Sanford is part of crowded field of 16 Republicans that also includes another well known name, Teddy Turner, a Charleston-area high school economics teacher and son of the famous media mogul of the same name.

One of the two Democrats running for the seat is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of popular Comedy Central host Steven Colbert.

"We'll see if that can translate into fundraising for them," Temple said. "That will be the determining factor."

The other Democrat is Ben Fraiser, who twice ran unsuccessful for the seat.  

The primaries will be held March 19, which has given the field just weeks to scrape together a campaign team and enough money to get through the May 7 general election.

"Sit back and buckle up," the non-partisan Cook Political Report writes about the race.

The coastal district gave President Obama just 40 percent of the vote in 2012, which in part has Cook analysts putting this race in the "lean Republican" category.

The House seat became open when Republican Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to serve out the term for DeMint,  who unexpectedly announced in December that he is leaving Congress to run the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Most political observers expect the Republican candidate will be decided in a Sanford-included, April 2 runoff because so many candidates will keep him from getting 50 percent of the primary vote.

And at that point, voters whose candidates lost in the primary could coalesce around an anti-Sanford candidate, who almost certainly will have to go negative, Cook writes.

As proof of how unpredictable South Carolina politics can be, Temple points out that DeMint finished second in a 1998 House primary, without carrying a single county, then defeated state Sen. Michael Fair in the runoff.  

Others point to Alvin Greene, who in 2010 became the Democratic Party's nominee in its Senate race against DeMint, with limited money, little campaigning, no website and no yard signs.

The 52-year-old Sanford was South Carolina's governor from 2003 to 2011.  In his first term, Sanford issued 106 state budget vetoes. And when the Republican-led state House overrode all but one, Sanford purportedly brought live pigs to the chamber to protest so-called "pork" projects. He rejected the entire General Assembly budget in 2006. And as a supporter of limited-government, he made efforts to reform funding for the state's public education system.

"He's fearless," Temple said after watching Sanford interact recently with voters. "He goes right up to them, apologizes and goes straight to his message."