Somewhere, Mark Sanford is smiling.
That's because the former governor's better-than-expected showing in Tuesday's Republican primary in South Carolina's 1st District paired with a yet-to-be-settled race for the second spot in the upcoming runoff means Sanford is well-positioned to take another big step toward a return to elected office on April 2.
"Sanford will be tough to beat unless the anti-Sanford vote can coalesce quickly -- something that might be difficult given the margin between [the second and third place finishers] is currently less than 1 percent," said South Carolina Republican strategist Jim Dyke, who was neutral in the primary.
Sanford led a field of 15 other Republicans with nearly 37 percent of the vote Tuesday night. His closest competitor, former Charleston county councilor Curtis Bostic, won only about 13 percent of the vote.
Thirty-seven percent is a strong number in such a crowded field. If that wasn't reason enough for Sanford to be optimistic, there's more. State Sen. Larry Grooms (R), who lost to Bostic by fewer than 500 votes, didn't concede the second runoff spot late Tuesday. Under state law, a margin as slim as the one that separates Grooms and Bostic will trigger an automatic recount.
For Sanford, that means at least a couple more days before he has an official opponent in the two-week sprint toward the April 2 runoff.
Tuesday's turnout level probably worked in Sanford's favor, too. Fifteen percent is pretty thin, but it's better than many strategists were forecasting leading up to Election Day. High turnout tends to benefit better-known candidates, and Sanford enjoys virtually universal name recognition in the district he represented before running for governor. Turnout won't be as high in the runoff, but Sanford's initial support level bodes well for his odds in the second round.
"I always thought if Sanford got over 35 percent in round one, he would be tough to beat in round two," said Republican strategist Richard Quinn, who was neutral in the primary campaign.
Things are clearly looking up for Sanford. But winning the runoff won't be a slam dunk. The Republican is trying for a second political life after a dramatic fall from public grace in 2009, when he disappeared for almost a week and then admitted to an extramarital affair. More than six in 10 Republican voters chose someone other than Sanford on Tuesday, and a one-on-one race is a plum opportunity for an opponent to make the contest a referendum on his past.
"Sanford has a tough road ahead. With his universal name awareness, there's not a Republican in this district who really wants to know anything new about Mark Sanford," said Republican strategist Walter Whetsell, whose firm worked for GOP candidate John Kuhn.
The question is whether 13 days is enough time for Bostic or Grooms to take down Sanford. Given the likelihood of a recount, the window is even smaller. While not impossible, it's a very tall order.
If Sanford is victorious on April 2, he'll advance to the general election against Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), who won in dominating fashion Tuesday night, claiming nearly 16,000 votes in an noncompetitive race. (By comparison, Sanford won about 20,000 votes.)
Sanford must write at least two more chapters before his comeback story can be complete. After Tuesday, a happy ending looks as likely for him as it ever has during the campaign.
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