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Discussing his intentions to run for the Republican nomination in the upcoming 1st District special election with National Journal yesterday, former governor Mark Sanford perhaps framed the race best, “it’s off to the races.”

Sanford, who spent three terms in the 1st Congressional District from 1995—2001, is charting a course for a political comeback by retaking his former House seat, entered the race Wednesday as the default favorite, but it remains to be seen who he will face in the likely runoff should none of the candidates (presumably Sanford) receive a majority of the votes in the March 19 primary. Though his candidacy was speculated for some time, by making it official, Sanford blows the already-crowded race wide open, setting the stage for a primary election free-for-all the likes of which we haven’t seen in these parts for some time.

With a dozen or so potential candidates candidates already declared (see below) or said to be strongly considering jumping into the race, local GOP pols have little to lose by spending a few months raising their name recognition in the region and glad-handing potential campaign donors.

Take for instance, Charleston Rep. Chip Limehouse, an influential Republican in a (relatively) liberal city, who has been conspicuously more visible in recent months, says he’s resigning his post as chair of the powerful Charleston Aviation Authority to “focus every fiber of my being into this run for Congress.” And why not? In reality, all-but-one of the 1st District takers will walk away from the race with a mark in the loss column, but the sprint to the primary could be productive for an ambitious candidate stuck on the margins who is looking to boost their profile and grease the wheels for their next election. Heck, if you work real hard, you might get that extra 2% at the polls in what’s bound to be a tightly-packed primary peloton that will earn you a head-to-head match-up with one of the big boys, maybe even the luv guv himself—he certainly doesn’t have anything to lose.

So, don’t be surprised if you see a few more wide-eyed candidates’ press releases in the coming weeks before filing for the race closes on January 28.

UPDATE: Remember when we said we wouldn’t be surprised to see more folks jump into the GOP primary? Like clockwork, the Post and Courier’s Diette Courrege tweeted this afternoon that Charleston County School Board member Elizabeth Moffly will announce her intention to enter the race on Thursday, explaining to the P&C, “Why not me?”

Candidates officially declared so far: Rep. Chip Limehouse, Sen. Larry Grooms, Mark Sanford, Keith Blandford, Robert E. “Teddy” Turner, Former Sen. John Kuhn, Former Dorchester Co. Sheriff Ray Nash, Rep. Andy Patrick, Charleston lawyer Curtis Bostic, Elizabeth Moffly