(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.”
It comes down to the level of intelligence of the electorate to choose between substance of Colbert-Busch and shallowness of Sanford. SC needs to reject Sanford, and make room for progress and real values and sincerity.
This man needs to find another job. No one can trust him.
clearly, colbert was cut from the same cloth as her brother. like em both
As a resident of our first district, and an avid follower of this race, there is no question who I would vote for. Lulu Busch (as she was known before deciding to run for this position) was married to a felon featured on Americas Most Wanted, served jail time over her divorce to him, has been proven to be backed by Pelosi and her PACs and is on the record as saying if she wins, she'll be "the voice of the unions in Washington" (the same unions Boeing was avoiding when they came here and hired over 5k employees). Okay, Sanford cheated. But, as a Congressman and Governor, he's been the epitome of fiscal conservativeness, and an excellent leader. He fought against the stimulus, gave away almost all extras given to him as a Governor (cars, security, beach house, etc) and has looked out for our best interest. The man's #1 goal is to curb government spending, which is also my (and many resident's here) biggest issue. As far as his affair, he was honest (actually, too honest) when caught – how many other politicians can say that. I've met the man many times over the years and he's always been gracious, kind, intelligent and remembered me and my family (our names, careers, interests – everything). The media chooses to focus on his affair, but ECB (as she's referred to now) brings way more trouble to the table and has done everything she can to piggy-back off her brother's fame to land this seat. I was at the debate last night and she couldn't have been more unprepared, refusing to answer questions and just spouting nonsense statements to the questions she was asked (Moderator: "How would you curb government spending?" ECB: "I tell you what, Mr. Sanford. The only thing I care about more than my mama is my country!") The whole thing was idiocy. Gov. Sanford isn't perfect, but who is? If anyone votes for her, they're only doing so because of her relation to her brother, which is beyond sad.
I'm a conservative and even I can't understand Sanford's nomination.
This Sanford is a liar and a cheat. He abondoned the citizens of SC for his affair. He used tax payer money for his affair. Please Americans of SC, do not vote for dbag sanford
The hypocrisy rolls right off conservatives. If the situation were reversed, they would bludgeon Colber Busch with it, then piously vote against her based on their deep moral convictions.
I believe marriage is a fundamental concept that binds us together as a nation and a people i supported Bill Clinton until Monica. Forgiveness has nothing to do with trust. The President has his hand on the button that could end mankind. When you marry it's a CONTRACT with another person to love honor and obey, trust is a part, divorce is legal in this country, before you cheat on your wife get one. Men of power believe they have the right to cheat.
doing so means you are unfit to serve the country.
What a jerk. And he didn't even have an answer prepared? The only reason to vote for Sanford is why many people will – to keep the good-old boy's network going. Everyone knows he is slime and can't be trusted, and many peope don't care. Says as much about their character, as it does his...
I believe marriage is a fundamental concept that binds us together as a nation and a people
Marriage is not unique to our county or culture. Keep in mind the extremely high divorce rates and that some of our citizens are still denied the right to marry the one they love. You sound like some sort of marriage fanatic.
"Wiser" Time - Colbert spent less than 24 hours in jail back in the 90s, and both she and her ex were jailed because they couldn't come to an agreement on his child support payments. SHE is not a felon and has never misused tax payer money. Sanford DID misuse taxpayer money and his problems with his marriage are ongoing.
Colbert-Busch was married to a felon and is a Pelosi supporter. I would vote for Sanford if I only lived in Charleston, SC. but being from NC they probably wouldn't accept my vote there -unless I were an illegal alien-hey, maybe that's an idea-a way to vote in SC on 7 May. Be an illegal alien..........All kidding aside, Mark Sanford is a good guy who made a mistake (so did Bill Clinton-and numerous times with numerous women and he is still admired by many) so give the guy a break. Stop the crazy Washington, DC spending and send Sanford back to Congress.
@Anonymous, so you accuse him of misusing taxpayer money, but excuse her for being employed by Clemson University during this entire campaign?? If she draws a $100k annual salary, she's burned through well over $25k of taxpayer funds, as she rides her brother's coattails through this fairytale dream of being rich and famous, like her comedian bro.