FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford leaves The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. Sanford a former two-term governor who was a rising GOP star before he vanished from South Carolina for five days in 2009, is one of 16 candidates on the ballot in the upcoming March 19, 2013, congressional GOP election. As national Republicans look for answers after their November disappointments, a congressional primary along the South Carolina coast has emerged as a free-for-all driven more by personality than debate over party direction. Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford headlines the list of 16 candidates. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith, File)
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — As national Republicans look for answers after last fall's disappointments, a congressional primary along the South Carolina coast has emerged as a free-for-all driven more by personality than debate over party direction.
Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor, headlines the field of 16 candidates. He's attempting a comeback almost four years after disclosing an extramarital affair with a woman who is now his fiancee.
Several members of the Legislature are aiming to move up. Then there are archconservative local elected officials and a few political newcomers, including the son and namesake of media titan Ted Turner.
The group is living up to South Carolina's reputation for rough-and-tumble politics. What the race won't do is forge any new paths for a party lacking a national standard-bearer and needing to broaden its electoral base.
To many local Republicans, that's just fine.
"You can't be too conservative in South Carolina," said Katon Dawson, a former state GOP chairman. "If you get accused of that, you usually win."
The primary is Tuesday and the probable GOP runoff is set for April 2.
The Republican nominee will be favored in the May 7 general election to succeed Tim Scott, who held the seat until he joined the U.S. Senate in January. Scott became the South's first African-American senator since Reconstruction when Gov. Nikki Haley named him in December to succeed fellow Republican Jim DeMint, who left to lead the Heritage Foundation.
Republican Mitt Romney won the 1st Congressional District, which encompasses the state's Lowcountry, over President Barack Obama by 18 percentage points, compared with his 10-point statewide margin. The district runs north along the Atlantic Ocean from Charleston to the North Carolina line and includes Myrtle Beach.
Warren Tompkins, the GOP consultant who managed George W. Bush's bitter presidential primary victory over John McCain in the state in 2000, said the key for Republicans in South Carolina and nationally "is the messenger. We've got a good message."
The wild card is whether Democrats can capitalize on personality themselves. Their likely candidate is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a political newcomer and sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. Some Republicans temper their confidence with the idea that Colbert Busch would be competitive against Sanford.
Tompkins, who has no client in the race, described the Republican field as "Sanford and 15 people chasing him."
When Sanford isn't talking to voters about "a God of second chances," he highlights his record on budget and taxes. He once took live pigs to the Legislature to mock lawmakers for overriding his veto of a budget he said was full of pork projects. He was among the first GOP governors to reject some money included in Obama's 2009 stimulus law.
At a recent debate in North Charleston, several candidates called for eliminating the federal Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, though there was virtually uniform agreement that federal taxpayers should help expand the port of Charleston.
State lawmakers who can afford the television time boast of conservative credibility. In one ad, South Carolina's first modern GOP governor, Jim Edwards, tells one hopeful, state Rep. Chip Limehouse, that there is "a socialistic government up there, and I want you to go up there and stop it."
Despite talking about a need to work across ideological and party lines, Teddy Turner has spent time running against his more liberal father. A high school economics teacher, Turner blamed his family's politics on his father's ex-wife, actress Jane Fonda.
On the issues, the candidates emphasize border control and enforcement of existing laws when it comes to immigration, and most questions about gun regulations deal with mental health.
Tompkins says abortion and gay marriage aren't factors in the primary because South Carolina Republicans "stopped having social, cultural fights for the most part."
State Sen. Larry Grooms almost mocks the rhetoric in one television spot. "All the candidates are talking about the same issues we've heard before," he says. "Yes, I'm a pro-life Christian conservative who knows D.C. spends too much."
To distinguish themselves, some Sanford rivals have turned attention to the ex-governor's personal life. John Kuhn, a former state senator, said in a recent debate, "I've never cheated on my wife, and I'm not going to."
Merle Black, a Southern politics expert at Atlanta's Emory University, said the campaign highlights that GOP rebranding talk "comes from Republicans who have been losing. The Republicans have been winning in South Carolina. They're not going to abandon their winning strategy because of outside campaign advice."
Dawson, the former party chairman, said moving left isn't an option even in a general election. "If we do that, then the party is something we're not supposed to be," he said. "If we try to be 'the moderate party,' we'd probably disintegrate."
There are voters, particularly in less-Republican Charleston, who say they want a more moderate approach.
"Right now politics with the Republicans and the Democrats not being able to do anything in Washington has got me to where I don't know what to think," said Johnny Lofton, a 56-year-old cab driver and construction worker.
Jeff Sills, a 67-year-old retiree who retired to coastal Mount Pleasant from Florida, said he's a "lifelong Republican" but added that he's "found it difficult in recent years to make a vote for them because some of the positions are so extreme."
Yet Lofton said his choice is the famously uncompromising Sanford, and Sills said Sanford "seems like a pretty good guy" and is "the only name I really know."
Jim Dyke, a South Carolina native and former Republican National Committee spokesman, said it's obvious that the central question of the campaign "is whether forgiveness is divine or can also come from voters."
The national parties say they're on the sidelines for now.
Democrats in Washington take special care to play down the race, though Tompkins and Dyke suggest the opposition is sandbagging.
"They certainly feel like they have a chance if Mark Sanford wins it on our side," Tompkins said.
Dyke added, "I absolutely expect they'll make a play. Can you think of a better validation of the president's policies or the idea that the president's party can win back the House?"
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter (at)BillBarrowAP