CHARLESTON, SC — Mark Sanford, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, who turned the phrase hiking the Appalachian Trail into a euphemism for an affair, sat in a coffee shop here on a recent morning and wept.
He is sprinting toward a crowded March 17 congressional primary, in which 16 Republicans and two Democrats are vying for the chance to represent a redrawn district that runs along the coast through Charleston and Hilton Head, with some low country farmland woven in.
Forgiveness has been Sanford's comeback theme, both in advertisements and interviews. What he has been through, he said, has made him a more compassionate though no less conservative candidate.
I think you do way more soul-searching on the way down than you do on the way up, he said as he fought back tears.
The way down, in his case, was a divorce from Jenny Sanford, his wife of 21 years, ethics fines and censure by his party after he went missing for six days in 2009 to pursue a romantic relationship with an Argentine woman to whom he is now engaged.
Sanford had told his aides that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
He limped through the last year and a half of his term in disgrace, retiring to the family farm in Beaufort, S.C., to work on his inner journey, as he put it. Then the seat opened up in the congressional district he represented in the 1990s.
Plenty of people wanted Jenny Sanford, whose personal wealth and policy savvy had allowed her to rise to a position of political influence in the wake of it all, to run for the seat. She declined. She also declined a request by Mark Sanford to help run his campaign, something he would not comment on.
The Sanford comeback attempt is only one wrinkle in what, by all accounts, is the wildest political race in the country right now. And that is saying a lot for a state that is used to offering great political theater.
The sheer number of candidates is remarkable enough, but the people on the list bring a certain star power to the special election for a seat formerly held by Tim Scott, a Republican appointed to the Senate last year.
In addition to Sanford, the Republican field includes Teddy Turner, the schoolteacher son of the media mogul Ted Turner; two powerful legislators; a retired sheriff; and a Libertarian.
For the Democrats, the only candidates are Ben Frasier, a quirky perennial with conservative views who has run in nearly every congressional election since 1972, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and the sister of the television host Stephen Colbert.
The political chain reaction that made the election necessary in the first place is no less cinematic.
It started in December, when Sen. Jim DeMint announced that he was leaving office to run the Heritage Foundation. Gov. Nikki Haley, a Tea Party favorite, appointed Scott to the seat.
For those who appreciate the odd ways Southern politics can turn, Scott became the first black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina in 114 years. To do it, he had to defeat Paul Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist who fathered a child with the family's black maid.
The scrum surrounding Scott's congressional seat is no less dramatic, at least by South Carolina standards.
If Colbert Busch makes it to the general election and faces Sanford a situation many here see as a real possibility there is a chance that a Democrat might retake a seat that has not been held by a Democrat since 1981 but is traditionally Democratic. In the presidential election, 58 percent of voters in the newly redrawn district voted for Mitt Romney.
The primary is unlike any other, said Robert Oldendick, the executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina. The general election will be fascinating, too, but for a different reason. It could be a matter of how much resistance is there to Sanford, particularly among Republican women voters in the district.
Colbert Busch is selecting some of her issues accordingly. On Friday, she issued a statement condemning the all-male South Carolina delegation for voting against the Violence Against Women Act, especially in light of the fact that South Carolina was recently ranked No. 2 in the U.S. for the rate at which women are killed by men.
She is using her personal story as part of her campaign, too. Divorced early in her life, she was left to raise three children. She headed back to college, then developed a career in the male-dominated international shipping business that lasted decades.
She is currently on leave from Clemson University, where she works on a wind power project.
Her mother, who raised 11 children and was left a widow after a plane crash, remains her touchstone, as do the politics of John F. Kennedy and former Sen. Fritz Hollings.
I believe we must take care of each other, all of us, she said.
The Republican field is so crowded that there is likely to be a runoff in April before the general election in May. Early polling shows that most people view Sanford as the one to beat.
As a result, he is being attacked by many candidates. Larry Grooms, a state senator who has woven his conservative Christian values into his campaign, said that the risks of going up against a candidate like Colbert Busch were too high to have anyone but what his campaign called an airtight nominee.
Turner, who teaches at a private Charleston day school and has variously raced yachts and shot news in Moscow for CNN, which his father founded, was the first to broadcast ads in the primary. He has not let up on buying airtime, and he has said in interviews that he is more fiscally conservative than even Sanford, whose campaign has been encouraging supporters to spray-paint campaign signs on plywood to save money.
Turner, on the other hand, says he might spend as much as $500,000 on the race. He regularly finds himself distancing his political views from those of his famously liberal father.
If I were riding Ted Turner's coattails, would I be living in South Carolina and running as a Republican? he said.
Colbert Busch, on the other hand, is enjoying the lift from her famous relative. Her brother has mentioned her race on his late-night talk show, which is dedicated to spoofing Republicans. He held a fundraiser for her in New York and traveled to South Carolina last week for another one in a bowling alley. A private dinner with the pair (plus a signed copy of Stephen Colbert's book) sold for $5,200.
She does not have to worry much about the primary, but the Republicans do. With so little time until the vote, and the airwaves already crowded with ads trying to portray each candidate as more of a deficit hawk than the next, many in the fight say personal contact will win the day.
The turnout is likely to be small, so even a few votes can make a big difference.
I will probably shake several hundred hands before the day is over, Grooms said in an interview last week. It'll be all about a ground game.