(CNN) – They've been going after each other from a distance. Now they get to do it in person.
Monday evening former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch debate for the first time in their battle for the Palmetto State's vacant congressional seat, in an entertaining race that's grabbed national attention.
The showdown, being held at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, is likely the only face-off prior to next Tuesday's special election for the disgraced former Republican governor brought down by an affair and the sister of satirist and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert.
Last week Sanford, who's seeking political redemption by running for his old House seat, debated a cardboard cutout poster of Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker and current minority leader. It was an attempt to call out his Democratic opponent for not facing off in person. Sanford had invited Colbert Busch, an official with Clemson University's wind turbine drive testing facility, to a series of debates prior to the May 7 special election, but the Democratic candidate accepted only the Monday night debate.
"My opponent has done a great job of hiding her real views from scrutiny in an effort to be all things to all people, and my hope is that tonight we'll get to the heart of the matter of what she really represents – yet another vote for Nancy Pelosi and the destructive policies that have put spending on a completely unsustainable pace," said Sanford Monday in a statement.
Sanford said that a vote for Colbert Busch would also be a vote for Pelosi, who has high negatives with Republican voters and who most likely would become House speaker again if the Democrats run the table and regain control of the chamber in the 2014 midterm elections.
Colbert Busch has responded, saying the compressed time frame of the special election is forcing her to focus on talking with voters in the district instead of debating Sanford.
"While Mark Sanford continues his desperate campaign to deceive voters, Elizabeth Colbert Busch is spending her time with real people who support her campaign – today alone," said Colbert Busch press secretary James Smith. "She doesn't have to resort to phony cardboard cutouts to talk with the people of South Carolina."
Sanford was in his second term as governor in 2009 when he briefly disappeared from public view for several days and re-emerged, claiming he'd been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later admitted that he was actually in Argentina, seeing the woman with whom he was having an affair. He's now engaged to that woman.
The episode sank any hopes Sanford had of making a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Sanford and then-wife Jenny were divorced in 2010 and he finished his second term as governor in January 2011, exiting to what many thought would be political obscurity.
But he's back, beating out 15 other candidates last month to win the Republican nomination in a congressional district that the GOP has held for over 30 years.
Sanford himself served three terms representing the district before running for governor. And even with all his political baggage, he was considered the favorite in the May election until three weeks ago, when court documents revealed his ex-wife, Jenny, had filed complaints against Sanford for trespassing on her property. He's scheduled for a court appearance two days after the election.
Not long after the story broke, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced it was pulling out of the race and national Democratic groups announced they were throwing more money into the contest.
While Sanford has stayed on the attack, with the narrator in a campaign TV commercial out last week saying Colbert Busch is "fighting for big labor" and has been "funded by labor union special interest money," Colbert Bush's campaign has mostly left the counter attacks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the independent pro-Democratic House Majority PAC.
The debate, sponsored by the Patch news service, the South Carolina Radio Network and Charleston TV station WCBD, will be 75 minutes in length, with 12 sections of questions following the candidates two minute opening statements. Colbert Busch won the coin toss, allowing her to go first.
"This the only debate in the first truly competitive congressional general election in Charleston since 1980 – and with the polls showing Elizabeth Colbert Busch narrowly ahead, this debate could be pivotal," says Jon Avlon, political columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast and a CNN contributor, who's the host of the debate.
"Mark Sanford has experience on his side – he's debated dozens of times in his career, while this is Colbert Busch's first debate. Momentum seems to be on her side, but this debate is where substance meets sentiment," adds Avlon, who's family has lived in South Carolina for years.
The debate organizers say they want to keep the debate focused on policy, so the big question going into the showdown is if Sanford's personal controversies will come up. Sanford has been touting his fiscal conservative credentials as he runs. But he can't seem to escape the affair. Sunday several roadside Sanford signs that said "Sanford saves tax $" had signs that said "Remember Argentina" placed next to them.
The congressional seat became vacant when Rep. Tim Scott, who won re-election by 27 percentage points in last November's election, was named by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the Senate seat of Sen. Jim DeMint, who stepped down late last year to take over as the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation.