As far as political debates go, this one was a real rumble.
On one side of the ring was South Carolina congressional candidate Mark Sanford (R), a former three-term congressman, two-term governor – and one-time Appalachian Trail devotee – who came across as a neophyte. On the other side was Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of comedian Stephen Colbert – and the actual political newcomer – who entered the debate swinging.
One week before a special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the “75-minute slugfest” capped a raucous race that saw the frontrunner (the politically seasoned Mr. Sanford) and the underdog (newcomer Ms. Colbert Busch) switch roles.
Colbert Busch, we hear, threw jabs all evening long. Here's one: After Sanford spoke extensively about his efforts as a lawmaker and governor to cut wasteful spending, Colbert Busch turned to him and let loose this zinger:
“When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn’t mean you take the money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose.”
Kapow! For viewers just tuning in, this was of course a reference to Sanford’s use of state funds to fly to Argentina to visit his mistress, under the pretext of hiking the Appalachian Trail, a public relations fiasco that upended his political career. He later got divorced, was censured by the state Legislature, and paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest ever in South Carolina.
Barely half an hour into the debate, “the elephant in the room raised its trunk and blew,” as The New York Times put it.
The debate moderators and the audience, which hooted and hollered, weren’t much help.
“She went there, Governor Sanford,” one moderator said helpfully as Sanford stammered.
Sanford swung back, calling Colbert Busch a tool of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi who has accepted contributions and endorsements from labor unions, which are unpopular in conservative South Carolina.
Last week, we hear, he debated a cardboard cutout of Ms. Pelosi, and last night he uttered Pelosi’s name so many times that several people following the debate on Twitter suggested someone start a drinking game.
Once the comic book stunts subsided, the dueling duo dug into the issues, where their differences were many, as Politico reports.
Sanford said he opposed expanded background checks for gun buyers and the gun control bill that recently failed in the US Senate; Colbert Busch said she backed it. Sanford said he would vote against comprehensive immigration reform; Colbert Busch said she supports it. Sanford said gay marriage should be left to the states; Colbert Busch said it’s a matter of equality and civil rights.
“Freedom means freedom for everyone,” she said, echoing the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In mid-April, documents surfaced that revealed Sanford had trespassed onto his ex-wife’s property, slipping into her home and watching the Super Bowl with their 14-year-old, in violation of court orders.
It was one too many personal errors in judgment for the national GOP leadership to bear. It left the former governor to fend for himself just as groups supporting Colbert Busch stepped up the fight, spending nearly $1 million to hammer Sanford on South Carolina airwaves.
Colbert Busch has a 9-point lead over Sanford, according to a survey conducted April 19-21 by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. The election is next Tuesday.