After avoiding the subject for months, Elizabeth Colbert Busch finally brought up Mark Sanford's 2009 taxpayer-funded trip to Argentina "for a personal purpose" at Monday night's debate, only a week out from a May 7 special congressional election.
Ms. Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central parodist Stephen Colbert and a Democrat, is up by a stunning 9 points in a district that last sent a Democrat to Congress in 1978. So the move to bring up the former governor's 2009 disappearance from office – ostensibly to hike the Appalachian Trail but in reality to visit a mistress – could speak to worries about closing the deal or to a desire to hammer the final nail in Mr. Sanford's political comeback.
Whatever the impetus, the dig struck straight at Sanford's greatest political weakness – his views about and treatment of women, and how his past and present actions play with women, who make up 55 percent of voters in the district and trend fiscally conservative but socially moderate.
The apparent failure so far by Sanford to win over conservative women voters looms large in the contest – arguably larger than Colbert Busch's competent campaign or the broader philosophical and political issues in the race, including the debate about the federal government's role in rehabilitating the Port of Charleston.
Though oddsmakers in South Carolina generally gave Sanford, the veteran politician, the slight win in the debate, the lingering line is Colbert Busch "pressing the button to remind people why they don't like" Sanford, Professor Swers adds. "She managed to tie his lack of fiscal responsibility to the elephant in the room, his having an affair while in office and using taxpayer money to support it, which is both a violation of fiscal conservative principles that Republicans like and a violation of family values that Republicans tend to admire. Both of those things in one sentence – you can't get better than that for her."
To be sure, this special election to replace Rep. Tim Scott (R), who has filled the seat vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint, shows how far Sanford has come since crying at a press conference upon returning from Argentina in 2009, and later paying a $70,000 fine for ethics violations – the largest such fine ever levied in the Palmetto State. In late March, Sanford finished atop a 16-candidate Republican primary, then won the ensuing runoff against former Charleston County Council chairman Curtis Bostic.
But the Republican National Congressional Committee withdrew its support of Sanford earlier this month after his ex-wife filed a trespassing charge against him for violating a restraining order. Sanford took out a full-page ad explaining that he was simply visiting the house to watch the Super Bowl with his son, but the charges – which will be heard in court two days after the election – once again focused attention on Sanford's decisionmaking.
"This story about him trespassing, that's not a small story, because it's another indication that he doesn't think the rules apply to him," says Laura Woliver, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "A lot of women … have had troubles with someone intimate to them who agreed to terms and conditions and then reneged on them, and explained them away by saying they're a 'good guy,' a 'good father,' blah, blah, blah."
Sanford's political strategies have also drawn fire from women, especially his decision to hold a mock debate with a cardboard cutout of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D). Sanford was attempting to draw attention to the support Colbert Busch is getting from unions and national Democrats, but the optics grated on some women voters.
"The fact that he debated a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi is just bizarre, because it's like it was an object, a silent object that couldn't respond, and I don’t think the public thought it was cute or anything like that," says Professor Woliver. "It's like he has a cutout image of this incredibly powerful, experienced politician."
Colbert Busch has also taken a page out of President Obama's 2012 playbook by appealing directly to women voters, running an ad that talks about her experience as a single mother trying to get ahead in life.
"Women voters are very, very important, in this case especially the question of what those middle of the road Republican moderate voters – fiscally conservative, socially moderate – are going to do," says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the University of Charleston. "Are they going to be turned off and not vote for Sanford? Are they even going to be energized to vote for Colbert Busch?"
This ties into "something Obama has been able to do in the last couple of elections and what she's trying to do here," he says. "And given that it's a district that Romney won by 18 points, and it was designed in [the state legislature in] Columbia to be a very Republican district, it's pretty amazing" to have a Democrat with a 9 point lead in the polls.
In Monday's debate, Sanford's smooth style showed him to be the political veteran, epitomized by how he responded to a question about his vote to impeach Bill Clinton. Sanford offered to "reverse" the question, and then asked, "Do you think President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life for a mistake he made in his life?"
That piece of rhetorical judo cut to the chase of Sanford's appeal to voters, including women – that he is not only competent for the job, but deserving of forgiveness. But so far, such skillful appeals don't appear to have having the desired impact.
Public Policy Polling suggests that much of Sanford's base is not motivated to vote next week. "A lot of GOP voters are planning to just stay at home – while the district supported Mitt Romney by 18 points last fall, those planning to turn out for the special election voted for him by only a 5 point spread," it noted in a analysis earlier this month.
That leaves Sanford with an uphill task.
"When you're talking about marital infidelity, people have easy knowledge and experience with that, and quite easily get upset by that," says Swers of Georgetown. "Yes, parties are important, but when we vote for someone we invest in a candidate, a candidate's character, and we react when they violate their pledge and show themselves to be someone not of good character. "