In a hot race for Congress, Teddy Turner is like — and unlike — his old man

If you’re focused on the political differences between tea-party congressional contender Teddy Turner and his CNN-founder father, then maybe you’re missing the point.

They have far more in common than dad’s 10-year, third marriage to Jane Fonda might suggest.

Like his billionaire sire, the man who would thwart the revival of former Gov. Mark Sanford’s public career has an entrepreneurial bent that has pushed him from discipline to new discipline – this first attempt at politics included.

Robert Edward Turner IV likewise has inherited his dad’s do-gooder streak. He’s spent the last four years teaching high school economics. His three marriages match his dad’s record.

But most important, both Ted and Teddy Turner share an inclination to bring new rules to old games – and a talent for brash showmanship. “I’m tired of people peeing on my leg and telling me it’s raining,” Teddy Turner told Republican voters last week, prompting gasps and titters.

It was an attention-getting gambit worthy of a father once known as Captain Outrageous.

The same goes for Teddy Turner’s current TV attack ad aimed at Sanford and several of his other Republican rivals, featuring a brandy-swilling Southern rake who begs his lover’s forgiveness. “I’m sorry for all the mistakes I’ve made. Sugar, just give me one more chance?” he oozes.

The special election for South Carolina’s First District – the wealthiest swath of the state anchored by Charleston and Hilton Head Island – erupted in December, when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint.

Sixteen Republicans and two Democrats have joined the stampede to the March 19 primaries. But the riot of candidates has been largely overshadowed by its three celebrities.

Perhaps the South’s most famous adulterer, thanks to a disappearance first attributed to a hike on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford has turned the GOP contest into his personal apology tour. Sanford’s campaign has been filled with amends for his affair with an Argentine journalist – the object of his secretive 2009 journey.

Then there’s Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic sister of Comedy Central’s faux conservative pundit, Stephen Colbert. (Like the rest of South Carolina, she puts a hard “t” at the end of her maiden name.)

Teddy Turner, the oldest son – by a first marriage — of the man who invented the 24-hour TV news cycle, rounds out a trio that has sucked up far more than its share of oxygen. He’s been required to deny his father more times than Luke Skywalker.

The 49-year-old Turner insists he was raised by the pre-Fonda, more conservative Ted Turner that older Atlantans might remember.

“He met my mother at a Young Republicans convention. He was very conservative and this change in life was later on, and started with environmentalism,” the younger Turner said in a Fox News interview. He has yet to appear on CNN.

“It was definitely two different family dynamics between the Turners and the Fondas. But it was always very interesting,” Turner added during a break in campaigning last week.

The elder Turner, now 78, has endorsed his son’s campaign – and written three checks totaling $7,800. ”I think Dad’s very proud,” his son said.

Teddy Turner’s South Carolina roots date to his four years at The Citadel, the Charleston military institution. After that came a stint as a CNN editor and cameraman in the Soviet Union, a formative experience for a young man.

“It was such a cool time to be there as an American – after all that time at The Citadel learning how to kill them, and then going over there to learn how to live with them,” Turner said.

It was his two years in the collapsing communist superpower that he says turned him into a free market conservative.

After two failed start-ups, the third – a yacht repair business — brought him to Charleston. He sold out as the recession took hold, and moved into yet another career – teaching at the private Charleston Collegiate School on Johns Island. “It’s a small, very socio-economically diverse school. Forty percent of our kids are on scholarship,” he said.

The father of three could afford the pay cut. “My dad has shown us all that just gaining wealth is not important. It’s what you do with the wealth you have,” he said.

Now on leave from Charleston Collegiate, Turner tells his audiences that teaching led him into politics. He’ll spend the next 12 days careening up and down the coastal district in a tall South Carolina-made panel van with his name emblazoned on the side.

Sanford represented the First District for three terms before running for governor, and is considered the favorite in a GOP contest that’s likely to result in a runoff. Turner is competing with the remaining 14, including several state lawmakers, for the second runoff spot.

And so the economics teacher has gone to war not just against Washington, but against a state legislature as well. “There’s no accountability in Washington. There’s no accountability in Columbia,” he told elderly residents at Sun City Hilton Head.

Turner is working without the standard network usually considered essential in a shortened campaign. “If you start lining up special interest groups or endorsement from different people, then you’re on a team,” Turner said. “You’re beholden to that team. And that’s politics as usual.”

On Friday, Turner reported $376,433 raised for his campaign. Of that, he’s pumped in $317,000 himself. (Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and his wife Colleen, family friends, have donated $1,000.)

Turner’s stump speech is dominated by issues of governance – he’s for congressional term limits – and the need to cut federal spending and regulation.

He draws a distinction between being a conservationist, which he embraces, and the environmentalism espoused by his father. “Environmentalism to me is a business,” he said. (A request for comment from the elder Turner went unanswered.)

Issues like abortion and gay marriage don’t just take a back seat in Teddy Turner’s campaign. They’ve been packed in the trunk. “The social issues are a trap for the right. They are important. But they’re not federal issues,” Turner said.

But that may be an accommodation to the First District, and its high-end voters. “The First is almost more Libertarian than anything,” said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel.

This South Carolina contest has a closed, small-town feel. Turner says he’s known Sanford, another son of wealthy parents, since they were young teenagers and Sanford lived in Florida.

“His dad and my dad were friends. Mark and I went sailing together, went hunting together — we set a world sailing speed record together,” Turner said. That was in 1990, when Turner’s 80-foot yacht broke the Daytona-Bermuda record by 11 hours. Sanford, four years away from a seat in Congress, was one of his 24-member crew, Turner said.

Then there’s Lulu. That’s Colbert Busch’s nickname. She and Turner have traveled in the same Charleston circles. “Her husband’s younger brother – we sailed together, we were big buddies in college,” Turner said.

The attention paid to Turner, Sanford and Colbert Busch has frustrated many of the other 17 candidates – particularly on the GOP side.

“The media thinks this race is about nothing more than Mark Sanford and his past, Teddy Turner and his father, and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch and her brother,” said Jonathan Hoffman, a lawyer who was merely President George W. Bush’s director of border security policy.

It won’t make Hoffman feel better, but Buchanan – the political analyst at The Citadel – predicts that politics as usual is likely to prevail. Buchanan said his state is likely to see a GOP runoff between Sanford and state Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – who has raised nearly $500,000.

In the First District, the one thing more important than celebrity is genealogy, Buchanan said. And Limehouse is Old Charleston. “Family names mean something here,” he said.

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