Republican Mark Sanford's bid to salvage a political career and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch's effort to start one collided in a vigorous debate Monday just eight days before South Carolina voters decide whom to send to Washington.
The fast-paced hour at The Citadel in Charleston marked the first, and only, face-to-face meeting of the candidates. They are locked in a battle to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Republican Tim Scott was tapped to fill a Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint.
Sanford, the former congressman and South Carolina governor, sought mightily to link Colbert Busch with Democrats — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — who have helped fund her campaign.
Colbert Busch, a sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, who has helped her raise campaign money, reported raising nearly $875,000 in the past two months; Sanford, whose political career was derailed in 2009 by an extramarital affair exposed during a secret trip to Argentina to visit his mistress, has struggled to fund his campaign after the National Republican Congressional Committee declined to support him after public revelations that his ex-wife had accused him of trespassing.
And Colbert Busch, who alluded at one point to Sanford's secret South American sojourn (Sanford said he "didn't hear what she said"), nicked Sanford repeatedly for what she characterized as his failure to support improvements to the Port of Charleston, an intensely local issue; she also sought to promote her nearly three-decade-long business career.
Colbert Busch characterized herself as a "tough, independent businesswoman." Sanford, who said his 2009 experience brought him a "greater level of humility," defined himself as a government spending hawk with top ratings from anti-tax groups.
In addition to the natural drama of the disgraced Sanford seeking redemption, and the sister of a famous comedian seeking a Washington address, the debate underscored the candidates' differences.
— Colbert Busch said she supports the bipartisan immigration bill being considered by the Senate, mentioning several times that it's also endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; she supports expanded background checks for gun purchasers; she supports full equality for gay and lesbian Americans; and she supports legalized abortion.
She characterized Obamacare as "extremely expensive" and in need of "an enormous fix," and pledged to take a 10 percent pay cut if elected.
— Sanford said he would have voted against gun legislation that expanded background checks; asserted that gay marriage laws should be decided by the states; and said an immigration overhaul must ensure border security before "amnesty."
He also proposed privatizing Social Security.
And about Colbert Busch's criticism of his failure while a congressman to support federal funding for improvements to the local port?
Sanford said: "I was against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool." And he questioned why Colbert Busch contributed $500 to his run for governor after his opposition to the funding.
Colbert Busch urged voters to look to the future. Sanford asked, obliquely, in answer to a question about his vote to impeach President Clinton for his affair, that Clinton not be condemned for the rest of his life for one mistake.
Polls suggest that voters in the staunchly Republican district (President Obama got only 40 percent of the vote there last year) may not be inclined on May 7 to give Sanford another chance. But it won't be because of Monday's debate, which, while lively, did little to damage or enhance either candidate.