By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C., April 4 (Reuters) - Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch kicked off her general election campaign for South Carolina's open congressional seat on Thursday, her sights set on beating former Governor Mark Sanford after he clinched the Republican nomination this week.
Colbert Busch, the sister of television comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert, handily won last month's Democratic primary. But she kept a low profile as 16 Republicans battled for a spot in the special election on May 7.
Sanford, 52, prevailed despite a 2009 scandal that had seemingly doomed his political career. As governor, he tried to hide an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman by falsely telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
In an interview with WTMA radio after his primary runoff win on Tuesday, Sanford said his Democratic opponent for the seat he held for three terms before becoming governor was undefined on the issues.
"Right now in essence, we're running against Stephen Colbert. It's going to be tough running against a comedian who is well liked and has ties to the Lowcountry, but ultimately issues define a race," said Sanford, referring to the coastal region in South Carolina where the race is taking place.
Sanford's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Colbert Busch, 58, hit back with a statement detailing her work history, which included serving as director of sales and marketing for the Orient Overseas Container Line shipping company.
She is now on leave as business development director for the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston to make her first run for office.
"I was disappointed to hear about Mark's comment," she said. "He has known me and my work for years...If those successes can't convince Mark that a woman is capable of leading, I don't know what will."
Stephen Colbert weighed in on the race Wednesday night on his Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report."
He touted his sister's qualifications and called Sanford "an Appalachian hiker with an extremely poor sense of direction."
Colbert is hosting two fundraisers for his sibling later this month, including one in Washington with a number of U.S. Senate and House Democrats as co-hosts and another in New York City at the home of banking executive Sallie Krawcheck.
Redrawn after the 2010 Census, South Carolina's first congressional district includes the city of Charleston, parts of four rural counties and stretches south along the coast to include wealthy Hilton Head Island.
Colbert Busch grew up in Charleston, the eighth of 11 children. She was 19 when her physician father and two of her brothers were killed in a plane crash in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1974.
She is seeking a seat that has not been won by a Democrat since 1981.
"This is the first event we've had since the primaries, so here we go," Colbert Busch said in brief remarks after she toured a nursing home in a Charleston suburb on Thursday.
"I think we need to focus on what the district is concerned about, because they're looking for jobs and they want to educate their children," she said. "Those are the important issues, and we all need to do it together."
Republican Tim Scott previously held the office. Governor Nikki Haley appointed Scott to the U.S. Senate in December to replace Jim DeMint, who resigned from office to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
A Public Policy Polling survey released before the Republican primary runoff showed Colbert Busch beating Sanford 47 percent to 45 percent. The survey included 1,175 likely voters and has a margin of error of 2.9 percent.
But Charleston County Republican Party Chairwoman Lin Bennett said she did not see Colbert Busch's candidacy as a threat.
"The district is very, very conservative, and I think that we will keep the seat," Bennett said. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)