Sanford, Colbert Busch Clash In Sole Debate Before Election

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Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, faced off Monday night in the only debate before a special congressional election in South Carolina. Sanford is trying to make a comeback after he lied about an affair with an Argentine woman while he was in office. His ex-wife has also accused Sanford of trespassing at her home.


There's a high profile congressional race going on in South Carolina and last night the two candidates met in their first - and only - debate. For the Republican, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. This is an attempted political comeback, but it's being hindered by new allegations by his ex-wife that reminds some voters of how Sanford left office in the first place.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that Sanford and his opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch clashed over immigration, abortion, and over support Colbert Busch has had from national Democrats.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Sanford went on the attack, arguing his opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch is tied to liberal Washington Democrats. Sanford linked her to President Obama and especially to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The former governor continued to hammer on that point, saying he doesn't believe Colbert Busch when she says she would not vote in lock step with the Democrats.


MARK SANFORD: Nancy Pelosi is running hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads. This is an important point.


SANFORD: Hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads...

LOHR: Colbert Busch is a political newcomer known best as the sister of comedian, Stephen Colbert. She responded to Sanford quickly and forcefully.


ELIZABETH COLBERT BUSCH: I want to be very clear, Mark, nobody tells me what to do.


BUSCH: Except the people of South Carolina's first district.

LOHR: The two continued to battle with Sanford mentioning Pelosi more than half a dozen times. Colbert Busch brought up the former governor's travel outside the country in 2009 at taxpayer's expense. Sanford had an affair with an Argentine woman and lied to cover it up, saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He paid more than $70,000 in ethics fines. But last night, Sanford ignored the barb.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She went there, Governor Sanford.

SANFORD: I couldn't' hear what she said.

LOHR: Sanford won the GOP runoff to face Colbert Busch and he seemed to be gaining momentum. Then, Sanford's ex-wife accused him of repeatedly trespassing at her home. After that, the former governor lost the support of the national Republicans. He continues to frame the election as a debate over whether South Carolina voters want another supporter of former speaker Pelosi in Congress.

He even campaigns with a life size cardboard cutout of Pelosi and pretends to debate her. Here, he asks the cutout about federal spending.


SANFORD: And so, you know, I would ask you Nancy, where do you stand on stimulus?

LOHR: This is a Republican district. It runs along the coast from Charleston south to Hilton Head. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it by 18 points. But observers say it's not as solidly Republican as it once was. And what's more, Colbert Busch has outraised Sanford nearly two to one in the most recent fundraising report. And that national Democratic support is showing up in a barrage of negative TV ads that target Sanford.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mark Sanford walked out on us, violated our trust. Secretly used thousands of taxpayer dollars flying to Argentina and then lied about it, was charged with 27 counts of using his office for private gain.

LOHR: A Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling, recently showed Colbert Busch with a nine point lead over Sanford. But the special election isn't gaining widespread attention. Wes Love, who's in his 20s, says he's been following the race, but when I ask specifics...

So do you know when the election is?

WES LOVE: I assume it is the first Tuesday of - no, wait, wait, wait. No, that's not right. No, I don't.

LOHR: The special election is next Tuesday and will likely come down to who can get more of their supporters to turn out. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.


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