Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch held her own against former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) Monday night, avoiding any major stumbles as she sought to prove herself an acceptable alternative to voters in the House campaign's only debate.
The businesswoman wasn't anywhere near as smooth as the seasoned politician, stuttering at times and showing some nerves at the start. But while Sanford got in some shots at her Democratic and labor supporters, he failed to land a knockout blow — and she got in some blows of her own, tweaking him for the 2009 extramarital affair that derailed his political career.
Sanford kept his focus on fiscal issues, though he did argue that his political fall had given him a "greater level of humility." Colbert Busch largely avoided the topic as well — but she did accuse him of using state funds to fly to Argentina to see his mistress, an allegation Sanford has disputed in the past.
Fiscal conservatism "doesn't mean you take the money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose," she said to strong cheers from her supporters and boos from his.
"She went there, Gov. Sanford," a moderator said.
"I couldn't hear what she said," he responded with a smile before asking her to repeat herself.
She didn't, but later Sanford compared himself to former President Clinton when asked whether he regretted voting to impeach the 42nd commander in chief in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair: "Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake he made in his life?"
Colbert Busch has clearly had the momentum in recent weeks following new allegations from Sanford's ex-wife that he'd trespassed at her home. The big question of the night was whether he could cause her to stumble and he could regain some momentum. She stayed steady, and the trajectory of the race likely did as well.
Sanford went hard after Colbert Busch for the large sums Democratic outside groups have spent on her behalf, arguing she would be beholden to their interests if elected to Congress.
"Nancy Pelosi is
running hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads," he said to groans and
boos from the Colbert Busch supporters in the audience.
"It's not believable to me that someone gives you a million dollars and not expect something in return," he later repeated.
She fired back.
"I want to be very clear, Mark. Nobody tells me what to do," she said. "I am a fiscally conservative independent tough businesswoman."
She echoed that theme repeatedly throughout the debate, hewing to her centrist image by promising in her closing statement to take a 10 percent congressional cut, calling parts of ObamaCare "extremely problematic," and advocating for cuts to government spending.
Sanford pointed out that as head of government affairs for a local group, she'd donated to his campaign. She responded by saying he'd promised to support the Port of Charleston, a major local job creator.
"You didn't tell the truth, you turned around and did the opposite," she said.
Sanford argued that he'd supported the project but opposed the way it was funded.
"I was against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool," he said, echoing his repeated focus on fiscal conservatism.
The special election is on May 7, slightly more than a week away.
This post was updated at 9:35 p.m.