CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, debating for the first and only time in his comeback campaign for Congress, professed not to hear when his opponent brought up the Appalachian Trail.
But there’s little doubt that voters have already heard the message from Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat who hopes Sanford’s personal scandals will allow her to win this usually Republican, Charleston-area district.
As the contest enters its final week, her negative advertising against Sanford, the Republican, has flooded TV and radio airwaves.
“When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting taxpayers, it doesn’t mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose,” Colbert Busch said during Monday night’s debate, using a line similar to one in her radio attack ads.
Cheers from her supporters, who made up most of the audience of 500 at the Citadel, greeted the remark. Sanford asked for her to repeat it, saying he didn’t hear it. Colbert Busch declined.
Back in 2009, Sanford had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail in an effort to hide a clandestine trip to visit his Argentine mistress, an episode that continues to dominate his political comeback effort.
The debate was streamed online and not broadcast by any TV station in the district. It got a modicum of coverage on local TV news, including Colbert Busch’s remark about Sanford leaving the country.
But what viewers are already seeing in blunt attack ads makes the remark—if not the debate itself--almost beside the point.
One Colbert Busch TV ad contends that Sanford “used tax dollars to visit his mistress in Argentina” then “lied to cover it up.” A Democratic super-PAC is running a military-themed ad that accuses Sanford of having gone AWOL when he left the governor’s office for the better part of a week to be with his mistress, now his fiancee.
An ad that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is paying for airs a more recent accusation -- that Sanford was trespassing when he entered the home of his ex-wife, Jenny, on Super Bowl Sunday. He says he went to watch the game with one of their children.
The district, which runs from Charleston down to Hilton Head, has a heavy enough Republican tilt that insiders in both parties say Sanford could still win despite his personal scandals.
But Colbert Busch, a political novice best known as the sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert, is given a good chance of upsetting the damaged ex-governor.