April 29th, 2013
10:11 PM ET
9 years ago

Sharp exchanges take center stage in S.C. debate

(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.

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“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.”

Filed under: House • Mark Sanford • South Carolina
soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. flipper

    I wonder how the woman he is engaged to feels about being repeatedly referred to as a "mistake".

    April 30, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  2. Larry L

    "Independent Thinker" really is an independent thinker. Which do Republicans care about more – their sense of honor or their hatred for Democrats? That's a choice for voters in South Carolina.

    April 30, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  3. John from Brooklyn

    It's ironic that Sanford mentioned President Clinton's affair. Wasn't it his Republican co-hort from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, who served as chief prosecutor in the Clinton impeachment trial in the Senate? So, if Mr. Graham were asked the same question, he'd no doubt say that Sanford should not only NOT serve in Congress....he should have been impeached when he was the governor.

    April 30, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  4. YeahRight

    I'm a republican in SC-1 but I am voting for her. If Sanford can't be a man and stand up and admit his mistakes, loathsome as they may be, he does not deserve my vote.

    April 30, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  5. Bill

    @vic , nashville ,tn

    Yes, she did connect the dots – I guess you could not figure it out. Taking a trip to Argentina on the taxpayer's dime is indeed a fiscal matter. Maybe you like to fund politicians trysts, but not me. And the fact he is devoid of moral character and lied to the people of his state. You can have this clown, but he is toast on May 7.

    April 30, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  6. jhab01

    I'll spot him the affair, but who in their right mind (and I'm wondering how many there are in SC) would vote for someone who used TAXPAYER money to fly around the world to get a piece.

    April 30, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  7. jhab01

    Oh yeah, and flat out lie to their faces about it. (with that stupid little snarky smile)

    April 30, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  8. Dan

    If he gets elected, he will be a worse person than before. His victory will convince him he can do anything and get away with it.

    April 30, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  9. Laurie in Spokane

    How anyone in SC could vote for Sanford is beyond me. He's proven himself to be a liar, cheat, and unethical in leaving his post to visit his paramour. Wouldn't trust him to mow my lawn.

    April 30, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  10. Larry L


    I wonder how the woman he is engaged to feels about being repeatedly referred to as a "mistake".
    When I was young (and single) I would have liked to have more of those "mistakes". But marriage is about more than fraternity boy hormones and "hooking-up with some strange". Looking like a sad puppy and going to Jesus for forgiveness doesn't absolve Sanford of dishonorable behavior.

    April 30, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  11. No support

    "You don't go through something like this without learning humility." ??? Excuse me, we all see the grin from ear to ear that you got the hot south american women.. and now that you got her it is time to have another affair with the voters. Sorry dude, but there is not one ounce of humility in your bones... you are a cold hearted, self seeking, politician.

    April 30, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  12. Joe800

    ..think of his character in these terms: if he would sneak out of the country to cheat on his wife & use taxpayer money to do it...what must he have been able to do with really important issues?!...selling his votes is cake compared the *stones* it takes to pull of the argentina stunt....

    April 30, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  13. Freddo

    It's up to SC voters ... but I find it hard to believe they'd vote Sanford back in.

    He's a liar and a cheat – no matter how much he tries to use Clinton as a laughable example of redemption.

    April 30, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  14. crabman1

    it all comes down who is a better lire and cheat - ya just have to sell the load of crap better than the other guy

    April 30, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  15. Larry L

    If the voters in South Carolina vote this horn-dog into office they'll have something in common with the woman from Argentina...

    April 30, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  16. Thomas

    At least with Sanford you get a person that actually cares for his state.

    He cares more for Argentina !

    April 30, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  17. sc

    all i can say that if he wins, there is no hope for common sense to ever prevail ever again. I am just having a hard time getting over the honorless behavior, no integrity, no shame, just yeah I screwed you now put me in a position to screw you again......I don't get it. Has hatred become so blinding.

    April 30, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  18. Snarky MacFee

    I hope the good people of SC will see this poor excuse of a leader for what he is. The fool thinks talking to the cutout will work for him when the empty chair didnt work for the great Clint Eastwood. Foolish publicity grabs are just that and even a polished actor looked a fool doing that. To me, he is MOCKING HIS CONSTIUENTS. For that, I hope they slap him down. That smirk and bs line of "i didnt hear her" is stuff of elementary playgrounds. I bet he treated his first wife with the same derision he will treat the voters. I think the new gal must be hungry to be in america because who WANTS this type of snivelly, self absorbed cretin? My best to you all in SC! I love your state 🙂

    April 30, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  19. Guest

    A mistake is putting your shoes on the wrong feet.

    A choice is lying to your wife, your children, your staff, and your constituents about where you are and what you're doing as you carry on an adulterous affair with a person in another country.

    If Mark Sanford can't distinguish a mistake from a choice, and acknowledge that he made a very bad choice indeed, then he is not a person who should hold public office.

    April 30, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  20. csm_in_dc

    It's not Sanford's fault he won. It's the people who voted for him. Unless his opponents voted for him knowing what a firestorm this would cause.

    April 30, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  21. Guest

    If someone who worked for me didn't show up for work, lied about where they were, and used company money for personal purposes, I would fire them. No qualms. So why would anyone vote for a guy who did this?

    April 30, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  22. Eardley Ham Woodbury, MN

    Comparing Clinton's occasional dalliances with one's massive extramarital affair which involved lying to one's wife, staff and constituency as well as thievery of public money boggles the mind.

    Why anyone would give Sanford another chance to screw over everyone around him is beyond me. If I were a resident in Sanford's district, I would invite him to emigrate to Argentina and become a citizen of that nation, leaving my country to those who respect it and the principles under which it was founded.

    April 30, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  23. Ferathka

    If the people of that district elect this man it will show alot about conservatives. They are a morally bankrupt party and this will help to show it.

    April 30, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  24. Kate

    President Clinton ended his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and reconciled with his wife and family. Governor Sanford is engage to his 'mistake'. Big difference!

    April 30, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  25. carlos

    Argentinian beef better than American beef ?????....so, South of the Border you go Mark!!!!!

    April 30, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
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