Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, trying to revive his political career, and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch traded verbal jabs on his past indiscretions and her liberal political supporters during a spirited debate Monday night — their only scheduled meeting in the race for the state's vacant 1st Congressional District seat.
With eight days to go before the May 7 special election, Sanford stressed his efforts to rein in spending as a three-term member of Congress and as a two-term governor. The Republican noted that he was the first governor in the nation to turn back economic stimulus funds.
But Colbert Busch reminded Sanford that he once used taxpayer funds to "leave the country for a personal purpose" — referring to the extramarital affair with an Argentine woman he had while governor. Sanford said he didn't hear the response and asked to have the question repeated.
"Answer the question," Colbert Busch chimed in.
Sanford wasn't biting.
Later, Sanford was reminded by a questioner that he voted to impeach President Bill Clinton because of his involvement with Monica Lewinsky and asked if he would vote that way again.
"I would reverse the question," Sanford said. "Do you think President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life for a mistake he made in his life?"
Sanford is trying to rebound from a scandal that sidelined his political career.
In 2009, Sanford, after telling his staff he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail, returned to the state to reveal that he was in Argentina with a woman he later became engaged to after divorcing his wife, Jenny. Before leaving office, Sanford avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for the affair. He also paid the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina, $70,000.
On the issues, Colbert Busch criticized Sanford for voting in Congress against harbor dredging and building a higher bridge so the Port of Charleston could handle a new generation of larger container ships.
"My opponent voted against the dredging and voted against the bridge," said Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.
Sanford shot back that if it bothered her so much before, "I don't think you would have written me a $500 check as I left the Congress to run for governor. I don't think it must have bothered her that much."
The Democrat that she'd talked with Sanford a number of times years ago and he had said he supported trade and dredging.
"You didn't tell the truth," she told Sanford. "You turned around and did the opposite."
Sanford later said he opposed the money coming in the form of earmarks.
"I was against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool," he said.
Colbert Busch also said that, if elected, she would return 10 percent of her congressional salary to the government.
The candidates also differed over issues such as immigration reform, the federal health care overhaul and abortion during the debate sponsored by the Patch news service, the South Carolina Radio Network and Charleston television station WCBD and which was telecast by C-SPAN.
Sanford tried to tie Colbert Busch to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and labor unions. Often though, when he did so, Colbert Busch supporters would jeer.
"With all due respect to Nancy Pelosi, whose name I will raise again ... it all goes back to her and others. They have not pushed for financial discipline in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Colbert Busch said she was independent and planned to represent the district's voters, first and foremost. The debate, attended by 500 people, was frequently interrupted by applause and shouts from the audience.
"We're at an incredible tipping point as a civilization and I think if we don't get spending right in Washington, D.C., there will be real consequences," Sanford said. "I've gotten into this race with the hope of taking what I've learned in Congress, what I learned in the governorship and what I've learned on the way up and on the way down and applying it to what I believe is the great debate of our civilization, which is indeed, how do we get our financial house in order."
Colbert Busch portrayed things differently.
"Here's the fundamental difference. This is not the end of our time as we know it," she said. "The sky is not falling Henny Penny. In fact our best days are ahead of us."
The debate was the first joint appearance by the candidates in a campaign that began after then-U.S. Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by fellow Republican Jim DeMint.
Sanford and Colbert Busch won their respective party primaries this spring — Sanford after a GOP runoff. They are now vying along with Green Party Candidate Eugene Platt in the May 7 special election in the district.
The latest finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Colbert Busch has raised more money than Sanford — about $1.2 million to about $790,000. But money from his old campaign accounts left Sanford with about the same amount as Colbert Busch for the campaign. Stephen Colbert has appeared at several fundraisers for his older sister.
Sanford held the congressional seat for three terms in the 1990s. The district leans Republican but the race is considered close.
Colbert Busch is currently on leave from her job as director of business development for Clemson University's Wind Turbine Drive Testing Facility in North Charleston.