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Mark Sanford favored to top GOP primary. Is redemption complete?

Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford is the front-runner in the 18-person GOP primary in South Carolina's First Congressional District. But he might have trouble in a runoff.

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Sabrina Vegis, seen here in Charleston, S.C., says she's voted for Mark Sanford before, but the former governor shouldn't expect her vote this time. Mr. Sanford, trying to make a political comeback, is running in the GOP primary Tuesday in a special election to fill South Carolina's vacant First Congressional District seat.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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In his race to win a seat in Congress, Mark Sanford calls himself a "wounded warrior." Some women in the district call the former South Carolina governor who cheated on his wife a man who has lost his "moral compass." But, for now at least, election experts are calling him "front-runner."

The Republican primary for South Carolina's First Congressional District is Tuesday, and the internal polling of some campaigns suggests that Mr. Sanford could win one-third of the vote – enough to put him atop the 18-candidate field and qualify him for a runoff, according to the Island Packet, a local news outlet.

If Sanford does prevail, it'll be the beginning of an unlikely revival in a race made high-profile purely by the people involved. There's Sanford, who made "hiking the Appalachian Trail" into a synonym for having an affair; über-liberal cable mogul Ted Turner's son, Teddy, running as a right-wing conservative; and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, the sister of faux right-wing TV host Stephen Colbert.

But any victory celebration could be short-lived. Sanford himself has benefited from the fact that South Carolina runoffs historically favor the person who came in second. And in this case, in particular, Sanford's past could make it hard for him to win over women and win a majority of the vote against a single challenger.

"One of the things we know for sure is that a guy like Sanford has a good chance to get in the runoff, but more than likely he'll lose in the runoff … because in the second round people consolidate around the guy who's not" controversial, says Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

The special election is being held because former Rep. Tim Scott (R), the first African-American elected from the Charleston area, was appointed to the US Senate by Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned in December to run a conservative think tank.

In an 18-person field – even one with recognizable names, like this one – Sanford has by far the most name recognition. And that could be crucial Tuesday.

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