Colbert Busch steps outside brother's shadow, into glare of spotlight

Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) has a legitimate chance to defeat former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) in next month’s House special election — but the political newcomer will have to withstand a withering national spotlight to do so.

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Until now, most of the focus in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district has been on Sanford, his past infidelities and his quest for political and personal redemption. 

That’s allowed Colbert Busch, the Democratic nominee, to hone her image as an independent businesswoman among voters without much resistance.

But as the May 7 election approaches — and as Republicans and the press ratchet up their focus on the Democrat and her record — South Carolina political experts say Colbert Busch must show she has the discipline to avoid major gaffes or missteps. 

Moreover, she must demonstrate that she can hold her own with Sanford, a seasoned, if flawed, politician.

On that, the jury is still out. 

“I know her, but I don't know a whole lot about her capacity to stand up to you [media] guys,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, told The Hill.

The spotlight is likely to be intense. Both candidates have obvious star power and interesting backstories. 

Colbert Busch remains best known as the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, while Sanford shot to national prominence in 2009 when he admitted to an affair with an Argentinian woman.  

Because Sanford has already experienced the high of political victory and the lows of public scandal, he’ll arguably be under far less pressure during the campaign than the previously untested Democrat.

Clyburn said he considered Colbert Busch a “good candidate.” And while he admitted Sanford is a more natural politician, Clyburn said Colbert Busch’s personal style would help her in the campaign.

“She's a much more reasoned, thoughtful person,” he said. “Mark's made a career of clichés and sound bites.”

The Charleston-based House seat came open late last year when Gov. Nikki Haley (R) appointed Rep. Tim Scott (R) to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. 

Republicans hope to make the race a choice on economic issues, and have already begun attacking Colbert Busch for supporting parts of ObamaCare. 

The GOP argues that, as the race progresses, it will be able to tie Colbert Busch more to the national party and paint her as out of step with the conservative district.

“A lot of the attention that's been focused on her has been about her brother. She hasn't really been pressed on where she stands on and what she supports,” said Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

“The more we know about her as a candidate, the less folks will see her as a credible choice.”

Colbert Busch has been running a more focused campaign in recent days after some early missteps. 

She came out against both President Obama’s budget and an assault weapons ban on Wednesday, positioning herself to the right of the president. That could make it more difficult for Sanford to tie her to national Democrats.

Democrats admit Colbert Busch’s campaign hasn’t been perfect. She appeared unprepared and unfamiliar with some issues in an early national television appearance on MSNBC’s "The Daily Rundown." 

And her campaign recently deleted hundreds of tweets from her Twitter account, including some touting positions that may be less than popular in the district, like her support for gay marriage and abortion rights.

But Colbert Busch’s campaign has pivoted by focusing on local South Carolina media and issuing carefully crafted statements to the press, rather than granting interviews with the candidate. 

Colbert Busch has stressed her personal story: A single mother who took a low-paying job and worked her way up. Now as a Clemson University administrator, she works on setting up public-private partnerships for green energy development in the area, including a major wind turbine project.

While Democrats admit she can’t match Sanford’s political polish, they say Colbert Busch is strong in small settings and is capable of avoiding major errors.

“She clearly got the message about where she screwed up before and is now buckling down and doing the right things,” said one national Democratic strategist who’s kept close tabs on the race. 

“She's a first-time candidate. She's learning, and the last few weeks have her focused on South Carolina and making her appear as the independent businesswoman that she is in real life.”

Strategists in both parties say Sanford likely still has a slight edge in the race. But two polls conducted before Sanford won the Republican primary — one from Colbert Busch's campaign and one from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling — found her with a narrow lead.

Despite the apparent closeness of the race, neither national party has started spending in the district. 

Colbert Busch currently has the airwaves to herself. Sanford isn't on the air and national groups have yet to make any ad reservations.

Sanford’s campaign is seeking four debates, while Colbert Busch has agreed to just one — a sign her campaign is trying to keep limit her exposure, and the potential for big errors.

Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Colbert Busch was smart to limit the number of debates with Sanford. 

Harpootlian said that would help the candidate keep the focus on Sanford’s flaws, rather than give Republicans an opportunity to pick her apart.

“I don't care how much they ask her or scrutinize her, she has a lot more in common with the average voter of this district,” Harpootlian said. 

“Does she seem somewhat less professional than Sanford? Yes, and it's refreshing. She's not going to be as good on camera as he is, as slick as he is, but she's honest and that comes through no matter what she's asked.”

Harpootlian also said it was wise for Colbert Busch to avoid giving Sanford multiple opportunities to flex his debate skills.

“I don't think it's in her interest to give him a platform to do what he does. This guy's a great liar, he's slick as owl poop, so why would you give him that chance?” he said.

“What she needs to do, and what she's doing, is meet the voters of the district, voter by voter, person by person.”