Political newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch went on the offensive against former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford Monday night in a make-or-break debate — the only one the candidates are scheduled to have before they square off in a special congressional election next week. Colbert Busch — a Democrat, Clemson University administrator and sister of comedian Stephen Colbert — slammed her Republican rival's political record and even brought up the extramarital affair that nearly ended his political career, saying it was hypocritical of him to tout his fiscal responsibility when he used taxpayer money to fly to Argentina to see his mistress. Then this happened:
The crowd roared. Mr. Sanford said he had not heard what she said.
"She went there, governor," said Brendan Clark, a local news anchor and one of three moderators. [New York Times]
Sanford got in plenty of jabs of his own, painting Colbert Busch as a puppet of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and someone who's too liberal for their conservative-leaning district. But did either candidate do enough damage to gain an edge?
Several observers said that since Colbert Busch had a narrow polling lead heading into the debate, all she had to do was keep from getting steamrolled by a more experienced opponent — and she did it. "So much for the frontrunner playing it safe," says Alex Isenstadt at Politico. Colbert Busch "was so aggressive that Sanford at times looked like he didn't know what hit him." Colbert Busch didn't back down an inch, says Steve Benen at MSNBC. Even though the district leans conservative, she stood up for gay marriage with former vice president Dick Cheney's line, "Freedom means freedom for everyone," and countered Sanford's claim that she's a Pelosi puppet by saying nobody controls her but her district's voters. For a first-time candidate in her first debate, Benen says, Colbert Busch really held her own against a polished rival.
Still, the debate was heavy on substance, and that's where a well-prepared, veteran campaigner like Sanford can shine. The clash "marked the most substantive moment to date" in a campaign that has frustrated Sanford with its lack of debates and other direct exchanges, says Robert Behre in the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier. It gave Sanford, a longtime budget cutter, a chance to talk "about the urgency of getting the nation's financial house in order." Sanford got a high-profile opportunity to remind voters in the district, who elected Tea Party-favorite Tim Scott before he was tapped to fill a vacant Senate seat, that he had won top rankings as a fiscal conservative as both a congressman and governor.
But that might not have been enough for Sanford, says Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. "Mark Sanford needed a decisive win Monday night. He didn't get one." The best that Sanford and his supporters can say is that he fought Colbert Busch to a draw. "That spells trouble for the Republican, who is running out of chances to turn the tide with just a week left until Election Day." He's not finished yet — he's won a potentially key endorsement from Sen. Rand Paul, and is getting fundraising help from Gov. Nikki Haley. But one of his last remaining chances for a knockout has passed him by. Sullivan continues:
The entire campaign has been all about Sanford. But for once, it was about Colbert Busch, too. And that is why the debate was such a golden opportunity for Sanford. After being abandoned by House Republicans, badly out-raised and forced to contend with negative headlines about being accused of trespassing on his ex-wife's property, the intrigue had temporarily shifted to Colbert Busch. Would she stumble? Offer up a gaffe? Appear not quite ready for prime time?
Instead, she survived in one piece. [Washington Post]