MOUNT PLEASANT, N.C. — Former Gov. Mark Sanford, looking for redemption in a political career that was sidelined by scandal, said Tuesday's race for the vacant South Carolina congressional seat he once held for three terms will be his last if he loses to Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
"I think you can go back in and you can ask for a second chance in a political sense once," he said Tuesday after voting in the special election. "I've done that, and we'll see what the voters say."
He faces Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert, and Green Party candidate Eugene Platt in the race for the 1st District congressional seat.
The former governor, once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender, also said Tuesday that he is tired but cautiously optimistic as one of the more unusual campaigns in a state known for rough-and-tumble politics draws to a close.
An upbeat Colbert Busch, meanwhile, said she saw victory after she voted in Mount Pleasant, across the Cooper River from Charleston, S.C.
"I obviously feel very positive, very encouraged. We are all very excited," she said. "I'm predicting victory."
Sanford saw his political career disintegrate four years ago when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit he had been in Argentina with his mistress — a woman to whom he is now engaged. Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife, Jenny, divorced him.
Now, Sanford is trying to stage a political comeback by winning the seat he held in the 1990s, when the conservative coastal district had a somewhat different configuration.
Sanford's past was an issue for some voters Tuesday.
"Ms. Busch is looking for jobs and trying to help people. Mr. Sanford, he is trying to help himself," said Sam Green, a 61-year-old retired painter and father of six. "I'm a father and what he did was irresponsible — leaving your family on Father's Day and seeing someone else."
Gabriel Guillard, 49, a massage therapist and teacher, said she liked Colbert Busch but would have voted for anyone but Sanford.
"I would do anything to make sure Mark Sanford doesn't get back in because of his past behavior," she said. "And I am so tired of South Carolina being a laughingstock. I'm so sick of it."
Marion Doar, 79 and retired from careers in the military and business, said he voted for Sanford.
"Sanford was a fine fellow," he said. "He still is a fine fellow. Following his heart as he did was foolish but it happens."
Sanford already has survived a 16-way GOP primary with several sitting state lawmakers and Teddy Turner, the son of media magnate Ted Turner. He also won the primary runoff. Colbert Busch defeated perennial candidate Ben Frasier with 96 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Colbert Busch, 58, picked up the endorsement of The Post and Courier over the weekend. The Charleston newspaper called her "a welcome tonic" for those who suffer from "Sanford Fatigue — a malady caused by overexposure to all of the cringe-worthy details of his 2009 disgrace as governor, his ongoing efforts for redemption via the political process, his resurgent personal problems, etc."
Three weeks before the special election, news surfaced that Sanford's ex-wife had filed a court complaint alleging he was in her house without permission in violation of their divorce decree. Sanford must appear in court Thursday.
Sanford said he tried to get in touch with his ex-wife and was in the house so his youngest son would not have to watch the Super Bowl alone.
The revelation of the trespassing accusation prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its support from the campaign. The group, which had conducted polling and provided other resources for the campaign, said it wouldn't provide more money or pay for television advertising because officials worried he would have trouble making inroads with women voters.
Even so, Sanford picked up the endorsement of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite who is well-known in the district.
Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the Political Science Department at the College of Charleston, said the key for both campaigns is getting their voters to the polls. Turnout is expected to be light.
"It's going to be a close election," he said. "I'm sort of wondering if the moderates are going to hold their noses and vote for Sanford because he ultimately lines up with their policies."
Sanford, who turns 53 later this month, has campaigned this time just as he has during much of his two-decade political career — on the urgent need to rein in government spending and balance the budget.
Colbert Busch has focused on her business experience in creating jobs. She initially refused to make Sanford's past an issue but changed course last week. During a televised debate, she reminded voters that Sanford used taxpayer money to leave the state for personal reasons.
Knotts said: "If Sanford wins, it's a story about the fundamentals. This is a district that was designed to be a Republican District, and they will have sent another Republican to Congress."
If Colbert Busch wins, he said, "it's a referendum on Sanford's past - just too much baggage, and the trespassing allegations got him talking about his past when Sanford is best when he is talking about size of government and the budget deficit."