TAMPA -- You run into people at political conventions you don’t expect to see. For me this week at the Republican National Convention, the biggest surprise was encountering former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.
Sanford, a Republican, was once famed for his eight-year run (2003-2011) as one of the nation’s most fiscally conservative leaders. He’s now (much better) known mainly for the extramarital dalliance that culminated in a trip to Argentina, a frenzied media search, his staffers’ claims that he was off hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a horrible news conference in which he declared his love for mistress Maria Belen Chapur. He also said then, somewhat mournfully, that he’d try to make it work with his wife, Jenny, making the effort sound like none too much fun.
In response, she wrote a bestselling book and divorced him, taking her enormous family fortune with her.
I’ve known Sanford since he kicked off his campaign for governor in 2001 (he served from 2003-2011). I covered him occasionally for a number of South Carolina newspapers.
When I saw him coming down the escalator at the press center of the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Wednesday, I quickly moved to intercept him.
I just wanted to say hi, but he wanted to make amends.
“Hello, Governor Sanford,” I said. “It’s been a while but, I used to cover you in South Carolina.”
Recognition popped up in his eyes and he said: “Hi. I apologize for letting you down.”
“Oh, I’ve seen you since then,” I said.
“Still, I’m sorry,” he replied.
We chatted a bit about what he’s doing (he was a little vague on the answer). The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., reported this week that Sanford was in Tampa as a commentator for Fox News Channel. It quoted him as saying he’s been “sequestered” on his family’s farm south of Charleston during the last year and a half.
In our encounter, I congratulated Sanford on his recent engagement to Chapur. Then I popped him with a tough question. For the past year or so Sanford has been pretty visible on the political scene (witness his attendance at the convention), and I know from past conversations that he’s never enjoyed the business world as much as the political arena, thinking about and talking about policy and governance.
“So I bet myself $6 that you’re going to run a primary against Sen. [Lindsey] Graham in 2014,” I told him. “Thoughts?”
“Well, that’s a bet against yourself you’re going to have to pay off, because the thought hadn’t crossed my mind,” he answered, which wasn’t quite the same as “no,” and is a bit hard to believe.
Graham has been less and less beloved by the strong tea party contingent in South Carolina, thanks to his sometimes-support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and his on-and-off belief in global warming. Sanford was, pre-scandal, always the tea party’s man. And his disgrace gives him an edge, in a way.
None of the other prominent uberconservatives in the state have as little to lose as Sanford, who would risk almost nothing in challenging the powerful senator.
Hearing he had proposed to Chapur made the move seem even more likely to me. Only the future will tell, but I do know this: There are second acts in American life, even after an embarrassing romantic scandal, but if he wanted to regain acceptance, Sanford has to turn that other woman into a wife.