Mark Sanford’s comeback has been made significantly easier by his opponents. He faces fifteen other candidates in the March 19 GOP primary, none formidable. (If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff on April 2.) Teddy Turner, a high-school economics teacher and the son of the billionaire, has spent much of the campaign reassuring Republican voters that he’s not as liberal as his father—to say nothing of his former stepmother, Jane Fonda. “You can’t pick your parents,” he told a Republican group in Hilton Head, “and you can’t pick your parents’ wives, either.” Chip Limehouse, a rotund and dim state representative whose father is a prominent Republican, is nicknamed “Tommy Boy,” which, one Sanford ally quips, “is kind of unfair to Chris Farley.” The entire slate running against Sanford seems to be competing to fit the most references to “commitment,” “faith,” and “family”—as well as pictures of their smiling wives—into one 30-second commercial. Assuming Sanford does win the GOP primary, his Democratic opponent will almost certainly be Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Clemson University administrator and first-time politician whose main selling point is that she’s Stephen Colbert’s sister. “This is almost a free shot for Mark,” one prominent South Carolina Republican says.
There is really only one person who poses a serious threat to Sanford’s campaign. “Clearly Jenny has the ability to determine whether Mark wins or loses this race,” says one Sanford associate, who spells out two scenarios. “If Jenny went out there and said, ‘This man caused me humiliation, he put me through emotional hell, but we’re all human, I think he’s genuinely sorry for what happened, and there’s nobody in this field who’d make a bigger difference in Washington,’ then he’d win hands down.” Conversely, the associate posits, “If she said what hasn’t been told is just how cruel he is and how self-centered he is, and how he knew this was going to cause pain to me and the kids and it didn’t matter to him, she’d automatically sink his campaign.”
For now, Jenny’s strategy appears to be to stay out of the race altogether. She turned down an offer from one of Sanford’s primary opponents to manage his campaign and has, so far, refused to endorse any candidate in the race. Her ex-husband and his campaign team continue to eye her warily, afraid to say anything that might set her off. “Mark’s too smart a guy not to realize the power that Jenny holds,” says the Sanford associate. “I think he’ll be sensitive to what she’s sensitive to.”
And then there’s the other woman in Mark’s life. Last summer, he and Maria Belén Chapur became engaged. The fact that their relationship endures and is now in fact headed toward marriage, is an important talking point in Sanford’s favor among his supporters. “Not to make excuses for what he did,” a Sanford friend says, “but this was different from the Spitzer stuff or the Clinton stuff. It wasn’t the typical politician’s affair kind of scenario.”
And yet Sanford remains squirrelly about Chapur. When I asked about wedding plans, he tensed up and looked at my tape recorder. “I’m not gonna make news on that front,” he said. Would she be joining him on the campaign trail? “Again, I’m not going to make news on that front.”
Chapur is in her mid-forties and has two children from her first marriage; she still lives in Argentina and rarely travels to South Carolina. “It would be difficult for the two of them to go to dinner somewhere in Charleston and not cause a scene,” Chad Walldorf, a Sanford friend, says by way of explanation. Instead, Mark visits her in Buenos Aires and occasionally in New York and Miami. Prior to his reentry into politics, people close to Stanford thought he might move to Argentina.
Sanford maintains that the crucial mistake he made in his marriage to Jenny was asking her to play the role of political adviser—that, by doing so, he drained the romance out of their relationship, and it became, in his mind at least, a business marriage. Even in the midst of the adultery scandal, he was still leaning on Jenny for political guidance, calling her right before the press conference to consult on the most politically expedient thing to say. (Her advice: “Be honest and get it over with. Whatever you do, don’t talk about your heart.”) In his relationship with Chapur, he is trying to learn from that mistake. “I’m anybody but the guy to take marriage lessons from,” Sanford says, “but you want to treat that marriage as something special and unique and guard it and protect it in a way that I did not.”