Mark Sanford talks Buddhism, his daily meditation practice and unique campaign style

CHARLESTON, S.C.—Mark Sanford is going to be rude and say hello.

That is, at least, how he describes it when he introduces himself to strangers in grocery stores, ice cream parlors, diners and auto repair shops throughout South Carolina's First Congressional District. On Monday, the day before polls open for a special election here that will send a new lawmaker to Washington, the former governor-turned-House candidate spent most of his time driving around the district in search of people to meet.

Between stops around town, Sanford ditched his campaign driver and started hitching rides with reporters. He asked to ride in Yahoo News' rental car and we zoomed off toward the next event. On the way, I asked him about his unorthodox campaign tactics. After all, Sanford was meeting only a couple people at each stop. The entire exercise seemed grossly inefficient.

"My view is, bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes," Sanford said. "If you can just keep moving as an individual and you're present—I don't want to sound Buddhist on you—but you're in the moment. You're present with them, you actually can have a real conversation. You can talk about issues that they like, what they don't like, in a way that you can't if you have a crowd."

I asked him about Buddhism. (Let's face it, it's not every day that a Southern candidate for national office will drop a Siddhartha Gautama reference in casual conversation.)

Sanford told me that his interest in Buddhism stretches back three years, to when he retreated to his remote family farm after his term as governor ended—a term marked by scandal over his secretly leaving the country to be with his Argentine mistress, whom he now plans to marry.

While in exile, Sanford began studying meditation, a practice he continues to this day.

"A buddy of mine said, 'Mark, you're becoming a Buddhist Christian.' I come from the Christian faith. That's my faith tradition. But what I do like about Buddhism is the idea of being present," Sanford said during the car ride. "I think that that's missed in Western culture, where we're so busy looking a week out, two weeks out, a month out, a year out, and we're hurried and we're busy. And I think if there's any one thing I learned from that year I spent on the farm in the wake of getting out of office and just having a very, very quiet year, is the importance of stillness and quietness. And that extends beyond just the physical location. It extends really into the moment of, are you really with that person or are you thinking of the next thing you've got to do? So I do like very much that part of Buddhism. I think it's right."

Sanford declined to describe his meditation techniques, but said, "I've tried to be disciplined about a quiet time each day."

Earlier that day, Sanford began his campaign swing at a coffee shop and a diner just outside of Charleston. At the diner, he sat at a table with former South Carolina Gov. James Edwards and state Rep. Chip Limehouse discussing the race and why they thought this small contest in a small district in a small state had national implications.

"It's a battle for the soul of America," Edwards, who served as governor from from 1975-1979, said. "If we don't get every vote we can out, Obama will be a dictator. He's practically a dictator now."

After their conversation, Sanford greeted others in the diner and stepped outside. With plenty of time left before his next "scheduled" stop, he declared that he wanted to go visit the nearby Whole Foods, an upscale purveyor of organic groceries.

Why Whole Foods?

Because there will be people there, he explained.

Sanford's day-before-election day approach is like nothing any of the reporters covering him had seen before. As he walked into the grocery store, Sanford approached the first person he saw, a young woman in the vegetable aisle, and struck up a conversation. He introduced himself, asked her name and said he hoped she would support him. Then it was off to the organic fruit department. Then to the cereal aisle. And finally, one final stop near the check-out counter to deliver the spiel again to someone else.

Most people seemed to recognize him—or at least pretended to—and some just smiled and nodded. For others, it was just a guy in old shoes and a blue shirt who called himself Mark and wanted to shake their hand.

On his way out of the grocery store, Sanford recognized an elderly woman pushing a cart past him. It was his neighbor Marion Sullivan, a staunch Democrat, who was buying food for campaign volunteers working for his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

"I think Mr. Sanford has let this state down and embarrassed it," Sullivan said after he walked away. "I would be voting for anybody other than that."

Just as she said that, a grinning Sanford returned and put his arm on her shoulder. "We've been giving each other a hard time for how many months now?" he said.

"I told him he shouldn't run and embarrass the state any more, but he didn't take my advice," she said, while Sanford giggled next to her.

"Good seeing you, Marion," Sanford said, still smiling, before walking out.

"He thinks it's really funny for some reason that I can't imagine," Sullivan said.

Sanford pressed on, visiting tire shops, a store that sells motorboats, a Mediterranean deli and a women's clothing boutique. He talked to every human being in sight: check-out clerks, cooks, auto mechanics, deliverymen and managers, you name it.

With each interaction, Sanford attempted a bit of small talk. While he was standing on a sidewalk between stops Monday morning, he spotted two air-conditioning repairmen walking toward him. "I'm gonna harass these two here," he announced and approached them. When he discovered their occupation, he asked how to keep his air conditioning from dripping. "They're supposed to drip," one of the men said.

Later, while visiting the boat shop, Sanford stood with his hand on a two-stroke engine and listened as one a technician described the motor he was working on. Near the end, Sanford admitted to the man, "Yeah, I didn't understand any of this."

It perhaps goes without saying that Sanford's style could hardly be further from that of his opponent, Colbert Busch.

Across town that same day, Colbert Busch's sleek campaign bus was darting from one event to another.

While Colbert Busch has made herself available to reporters over the past few days, she is constantly flanked by an entourage of staffers and volunteers. Unlike Sanford, her events seem like they are actually planned, and they bear the signs of a coordinated effort with people from national Democratic groups who have flown in from Washington to help her run the campaign. (Don't be fooled by Sanford's scrappy appearance, however: His campaign has plenty of help from Republican volunteers flooding the state for the party's get-out-the-vote effort.) But with the bus, the aides, her large family and even traveling performer Jon "Bowzer" Bauman from the greaser band Sha Na Na by her side, Colbert Busch's organization is simply more visible.

On Monday afternoon, Colbert Busch's bus stopped at the Canterbury House in Charleston, a retirement home. In the building's common area, she greeted each person one by one before giving a brief speech in which she vowed to preserve Social Security and Medicare without "privatizing" it.

At the end, Colbert Busch invited her family members who were joining her on the campaign trail to the front of the room, where everyone, including the candidate, sang "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight" together.

It remains unclear which candidate has the most momentum heading into Election Day. The most recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Sanford leading by a percentage point this week, just days after the same polling firm showed Colbert Busch ahead. Sanford's campaign approach would suggest that he think he has it wrapped up—although it's possible that he's doing it because Republicans want to keep him out of sight—but with Colbert Busch's national Democratic backing, she could still muscle her way to Washington.