COLUMBIA — When Mark Sanford walked out of the governor's mansion in 2011, he had been censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for an affair with an Argentine woman, had paid the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina and faced a voting public that had become disillusioned with the one-time rising star.
His conservative fiscal credentials were still intact though, and now the 52-year-old Republican is seriously weighing a bid for the congressional seat he once held. The opening comes because 1st District Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Sen. Jim DeMint's seat. DeMint announced earlier this month he was resigning and Scott is expected to be vacating his congressional seat on Jan. 2.
Acknowledging reports that he will try to re-enter politics, the two-term governor wrote in an email to The Associated Press late Saturday: "To answer your question, yes the accounts are accurate." Sanford promised "further conversation on all this" later.
The two-term governor was seen as a possible ultraconservative contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
That was before he vanished from the state for five days in 2009. Reporters were told he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but he later tearfully acknowledged he was visiting Maria Belen Chapur, which he told everyone at news conference announcing his affair. He later called her his soul mate in an interview with AP, and the two were engaged earlier this year.
And to add to possible political intrigue in the race, Sanford's ex-wife and former campaign adviser, Jenny, also appears to be dipping her toe into the state's political water.
She was on Gov. Nikki Haley's short list of candidates to fill the DeMint seat that went to Scott. Jenny Sanford later said she would think about a run for Scott's seat in the coastal 1st District.
"I'd be crazy not to look at the race a little bit," she said Tuesday, before reports about Mark Sanford surfaced.
State Republicans said Scott's resignation will trigger candidate filing and primaries leading up to a special election in May.
Scott, in an interview airing Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," said he thinks there may be 25 or 30 candidates running for the seat.
"This is going to be a very active primary," he told Bob Schieffer when asked about Sanford's run. "The citizens of the 1st District will have an opportunity to have their voice heard through the vote and then two weeks later there will obviously be a runoff because with that many candidates we'll have a lot to say grace over."
Mark Sanford knows the 1st District well. Elected to the seat in 1994, he served three terms before voters elected him governor in 2002 and again in 2006. Jenny Sanford managed his first campaign and was a close adviser for most of his career.
For some, Sanford's fiscal record, not the affair, is what's important. Sanford is known as a libertarian-leaning ideologue who railed against spending and bucked Republican Party leaders before anyone even coined the tea party movement.
"Mark Sanford is a reliable fiscal conservative so I, like many conservatives, would be delighted to see him in the race," said Joanne Jones, vice chairman of the Charleston Tea Party, though she noted she'll wait to see the entire field before throwing her support behind a candidate.
The trim, stubborn governor attracted wide interest in spring 2009, when he opposed using Obama administration stimulus money in South Carolina. Sanford said it was irresponsible spending the nation could not afford.
His own party fought him on the issue for months. The governor even sued his own attorney general to block the cash from being used in struggling schools. In the end, Sanford lost, but not before he had burnished his conservative credentials and captured considerable national attention.
Just a couple months later, he acknowledged the affair. Soon after, Jenny left the governor's official residence in Columbia with their four sons and moved into the family's coastal home. Their divorce, which he did not oppose when she filed for it in December 2012, was finalized three months later.
Name recognition and money would be two things he could bring to the race -- both especially important due to the short campaign season and wide-open field. Sanford has $1.2 million left in his state campaign coffers.
Still, the question remains whether voters are ready to welcome Sanford back.
"It's absolutely absurd. He just has so much baggage. He was such an embarrassment to the state, we don't need that," said Gloria Day, a retired attorney in Charleston.
He avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature for bringing "ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame" to himself and the state. He also had to pay more than $70,000 in ethics fines -- still the largest in state history -- after AP investigations raised questions about his use of state, private and commercial aircraft.
Scott will be sworn in Jan. 3 to replace DeMint, who announced his resignation earlier this month to lead The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Scott, who would have to seek election in 2014, will become the state's first black U.S. senator and the first black Republican U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Candidates for Scott's seat must file by the end of January. Primaries will be held in March, with the general election in May.
John Dietz of Daniel Island said the affair wouldn't affect his vote.
"He said he found his soul mate, and at one point in my life that's exactly how I felt. I empathized," said Dietz, a retiree who characterizes himself as a moderate.
Dietz said he was disappointed that Sanford could not work with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
"I did not necessarily agree with a lot of things he did politically," he said. "I'm very much neutral at this point."
Retired Presbyterian minister Dick Giffen of Mount Pleasant said he wouldn't support Sanford, but added that it was unrelated to the affair.
"He wasn't able to bring people together and get action done," Giffen said. "He didn't produce anything. ... I really wasn't impressed with him."