Mark Sanford in American Idol Country

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The reporter’s favorite Southern town is my home for the next few days, until the special congressional election between Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch comes to a dignified and happy conclusion. I spent Saturday crossing the district to meet the candidates and see the terrain; gorgeous country running from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head, home to the rural “Gullah” descendents of slaves and home to plenty of wealthy South Carolinians who are used to having Republicans win. A few snapshots:
photo (5) Oddly symmetrical wooden signs backing Sanford are all over the district, more prominent in the rural areas where he’s expected to get out his base. A supporter with a bunch of wood and some spray paint has written up messages like “Sanford Saves Tax $” and “Say No to Pelosi’s $1 Million May 7” and driven them into the ground along the highways.
photo (30)
Colbert Busch, a first-time candidate who’s pleased national Democratic groups enough to coax real money into the district, has maybe the largest-scale campaign I’ve ever seen in a House race. She’s closing out the election in a teal blue bus—ELIZABETH MEANS BUSINESS—and doing meet-and-greets and canvasses in promising areas. I rendevous’d with her in Summerville, at the farmer’s market. Forty-five minutes later, after she left, I met Sanford. photo (24) This got lost in the winds of scandal, but Sanford has an incredibly easy charm and—maybe by necessity, now—a welcoming, humble campaign style. He just walks around, with an aide standing out of view in case media shows up or someone wants a picture. Lots of people want his picture these days. “It’s a blessing,” Sanford tells me and Yahoo!’s Chris Moody later in the day. He went through a period when people did not want to meet him. photo (26) The big press event of Sanford’s Saturday (he doesn’t campaign on Sundays, so the B-roll needed to happen FAST) was an endorsement event with the Tea Party Express in Summerville. Sanford fans and Tea Partiers from as far away as Beaufort (about 90 miles southeast) drove up for the event; Ann Ubelis, a Beaufort Tea Partier and radio host seen to Sanford’s left (camera right), introduced the man by warning fellow conservative of “what Dante wrote about hell.” The hottest places were reserved for those who saw evil and did nothing. Evil, in this case, would be failing to back Sanford. photo (28) I followed the Tea Partiers and Sanford to Beaufort, where Sanford’s sister Sarah (not pictured) and a few strike forces of volunteers held signs leading their man to the all-day festival. It was a triple whammy day: the Kentucky Derby, the “taste of Beaufort,” and a taped celebration of the area’s American Idol finalist, Candice Glover. photo (23) Sanford walked the streets in a random pattern. When anyone looked at him knowingly, he darted over to shake hands. “Pleasure to meet you,” he’d say. If a tourist got into the charm offensive’s path, Sanford handed over a business card with his phone numbers and offered to talk to “any family member” in the district.
photo (29) The candidate was basically mobbed. At one point, as Sanford was trying to make a point to me about media bias, families started interrupting us for photos. I counted: In three minutes, twelve groups of people asked him to pose. Sanford didn’t even notice one woman who looked at him sourly and gave him bunny ears on her way out. The glowing reception made his point. “NBC News was asking me about my ‘problem’ with women voters,” he said. “Well, look at all these women coming up to us!” photo (27) Sanford adapted quickly to the Candice Glover element of the day. He started greeting voters with a “Happy Candice Day!” And he spent the end of the afternoon working over fans at the official parade in Glover’s honor.
photo (22) The photogenic apex came when “the Collins family” of seven black women yelped at the sight of Sanford and ran over asking him for a photo. As they posed, I heard a female heckler yell “Elizabeth!” But the hecklers, generally, moved as if they were a little ashamed of what they were doing. Not so with Sanford.