(CNN) – As the debate between Elizabeth Colbert Busch and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford got under way Monday, there was an elephant in the room: Would Colbert Busch mention Sanford’s infamous extramarital affair?
About halfway into the showdown, the Democratic candidate vying to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District took a swipe at the Republican and his secret 2009 trip to see his mistress in Argentina.
“When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose,” she said sternly, looking directly at her opponent on stage.
Her supporters in the crowd burst into applause and cheers. When one of the moderators motioned for Sanford to respond, an awkward exchange ensued.
“I couldn’t hear what she said,” Sanford said, as Colbert Busch and some in the crowd began to laugh. “Repeat it. I didn’t hear. I’m sorry.”
“Answer the question,” she replied.
“What was the question?” Sanford said, smiling. He went on to talk about the forced spending cuts known in Washington as the sequester.
The debate came eight days before the May 7 special election, held to fill the seat vacated by Republican Tim Scott when he was appointed to a Senate seat held by then-Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned December 31.
Sanford is attempting to make a political comeback after the 2009 affair tarnished his reputation. His staff told reporters he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but it was later discovered he had traveled to South America to see the woman to whom he’s now engaged.
He and his then-wife, Jenny, were divorced in 2010, and Sanford finished his second term in 2011. Before running for governor in 2002, Sanford held the same congressional seat he’s now trying to reclaim for three terms.
Although the district has long been a Republican stronghold and Sanford was considered the favorite in the May election, the race seemed to shift three weeks ago when court documents showed that his ex-wife had filed complaints against Sanford for trespassing on her property. He's scheduled for a court appearance two days after the election.
Colbert Busch, the sister of satirist and talk show host Stephen Colbert, also pounced on a local issue in the debate–her first political debate ever. She highlighted Sanford’s congressional vote in 1997 against $2 million in federal funds aimed to boost traffic in Charleston Harbor. He was the only member of South Carolina’s House delegation to vote against the project.
Sanford shot back, saying his vote must not have “bothered her that much” at the time, given that she later contributed to his candidacy for governor.
“I don't think you would have written me a $500 check after I left the U.S. Congress,” he said. “I get it that it bothers her now.”
Sanford explained he was against the method of getting the money for South Carolina, not the project itself. “I was in essence against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool,” he said.
Sanford repeatedly brought up money that national Democratic groups have poured into the South Carolina race recently. As he’s done in the last week on the campaign trail, Sanford said a vote for Colbert Busch would also be a vote for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. (To make that point, Sanford debated a cardboard cutout of Pelosi last week.)
“What it says is, whose voice do you carry when you go to Washington, D.C.?” he said Monday, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that national Democratic groups have spent on the race.
Whenever Sanford mentioned Pelosi during the debate, he faced giggles and jeers from Colbert Busch supporters in the audience. One yelled, “She’s not here.”
But Colbert Busch sought to distance herself from Washington.
“I want to be very clear, Mark, nobody tells me what to do, except the people in South Carolina's first district," she said. "I am a fiscally conservative, independent tough businesswoman."
Trying to make her case, she criticized the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care reform that was passed by Congressional Democrats in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court last year. Colbert Busch argued there are points in the bill that are “extremely problematic,” saying it’s expensive, slashes Medicare benefits and costs jobs. But then she went on to highlight multiple provisions in the law that she favors.
In her closing remarks, she announced she would take a 10% cut from her congressional salary if elected.
The 75-minute debate was largely based on substantive disagreements, with the two debating gun control, entitlement reform, local issues, same-sex marriage and unions. Sanford’s affair came up somewhat on another occasion. He was asked by a moderator if he would vote for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment again, like he did when he was in Congress.
“I would say this: Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake that he made in his life?” Sanford said, prompting strong cheers and applause from his supporters in the audience.
Sanford has been open about his affair on the campaign trail, making it the subject of his first campaign ad and repeatedly seeking redemption for what he describes as a mistake. He argued that the episode will make him a better congressman if elected.
“You don't go through the experience I had back in 2009 without a greater level of humility,” he said, adding that such humility will allow him to sit down with Republicans and Democrats alike to find common ground. “I think it's incredibly important to forging conclusions in Washington, D.C.”