POLITICS
05/04/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Mark Sanford Race Down To The Wire In South Carolina

BEAUFORT, S.C. -- It may have been a slip of the subconscious, or a phrase often used in small talk that sneaked out of the candidate's mind before she got a good look at it.

"I love this."

Wearing a bright orange overcoat that radiated positive vibes, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was standing in front of a short man looking at the handwritten sign he had taped to his chest.

"No South Carolina $ in Argentina!!" the sign said.

After telling him she loved it, Colbert Busch quickly moved on to shake another hand.

The sign was, of course, a reference to Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who is Colbert Busch's opponent in Tuesday's special election to fill the coastal 1st District's congressional seat vacated by now-Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

This is without question one of the more unusual congressional races in recent history. Sanford, who disgraced himself in 2009 by disappearing for several days and then resurfacing to tell the nation he was having an extramarital affair with an Argentinian woman, has stayed in the headlines with a series of goofs and strange decisions. New disclosures about his behavior have dredged up his past, and he has tried to distract from those by staging attention-grabbing stunts, like debating a cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Colbert Busch, meanwhile, is the older sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. She is an accomplished 58-year-old businesswoman with three children. This is her first time running for political office.

From a distance, the race resembles a spectacle. On the ground, however, it is (most of the time) just another political campaign, a winner-takes-all, loser-goes-home, scratch-and-claw battle to turn out voters.

Colbert Busch has largely avoided talking about Sanford's past, with the exception of this past week's debate, when she tore into Sanford, accusing him of using taxpayer dollars to carry on his tryst back in 2009, drawing gasps and hollers from the crowd. But largely, she has left that to others, including a Democratic super PAC that ran several TV ads aimed at her opponent's personal life.

In addition, she has limited her public appearances and stuck with a bland, fiscally focused message. Here in this idyllic small town near the U.S. Marines' Parris Island training base on Friday, it was no different. She sidestepped a question about whether character would be a deciding issue in the race: "Here's the difference. We have a very positive campaign," she said. "We're very optimistic. We know that our future is ahead of us and it's bright and it's good."

Despite the flavorless message, Colbert Busch delivers it with a friendly earnestness and an enthusiasm that makes up for its lack of substance. She is quite good on the stump. She is comfortable in her own skin, and carries herself with confidence. As she disembarked from her sleek campaign bus bearing the words, "Elizabeth Means Business," in big white letters on an blue background, she moved through the small crowd easily, oozing sincerity.

Perhaps as a result, Colbert Busch is in a position to win the congressional seat in the district that former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won by 18 points last November, a seat that Sanford himself was elected to for three terms in a row before running for governor.

The race looks likely to go down to the wire. National Democrats, eager to embarrass the GOP in a red state, have poured money and resources into the race. If they can identify and mobilize enough Democrats, Colbert Busch will prevail. The national Republican Party, meanwhile, decided last month to abandon Sanford, announcing that it would not spend money on ads supporting his candidacy.

Sanford has been shaking hands and meeting voters largely by himself in the district, which stretches along the coast from Hilton Head past Charleston. On Thursday, he was in Bluffton, a small town 10 miles inland from Hilton Head, with what he called a little "bohemian" flavor. He wore a red, long-sleeved cotton Polo shirt, pleated khakis, and worn, brown leather boots, which he later told me were "goofy-looking." There was one staffer, a young woman, with Sanford, but he approached the crowd alone.

Sanford chatted easily with retirees and young families on vacation as they browsed through a farmers market, while an older man sang the blues on a small lawn nearby, sheltered from occasional rain by a small tent. Many of the people Sanford met were on vacation and from out of state. He moved quickly on from those conversations, but not without grace. It wasn't hard to spot the charm that just a few years ago made the 52-year-old a twice-elected governor with real prospects for the White House.

Despite his soap-opera life, or perhaps in part because of it, Sanford was greeted warmly by many of the people he met, and got disapproving glances from a few. A young pastor from Georgia with his wife and young daughter asked for a picture with Sanford. So did several others.

Another woman from Georgia asked, "Isn't that the guy who was on TV? For the girlfriend? I wouldn't vote for him."

But Debbie Morris, middle-aged and living in the district, said she had no problem supporting Sanford.

"I've been married 46 years. Men go through whatever it is they go through. The fact that he went through it and he happened to be a public servant at the time, it happens," said Morris, sitting with friends outside the Old Town Dispensary bar, smoking a cigarette and drinking out of a clear plastic cup.

"There's all different kinds of infidelity, not just sexual. I don't know what his relationship was with his wife and I don't want to know," Morris said. "Did he endanger the state of South Carolina? No."

Sanford has become optimistic that things are moving in his direction again. A poll that came out two weeks ago showed Sanford down 9 points, but more recent surveys indicate a dead heat, and Gov. Nikki Haley (R) endorsed Sanford this past week, along with the state's U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans.

"I think it's going to be close, but I think he'll win," Graham said, calling Sanford's Pelosi cutout stunt a "smart" move that nationalized the race and got it away from a "personality contest."

Once Sanford had met just about everyone in sight at the farmers market, he sat down for what turned out to be a 45-minute conversation. He was desperate to get some of the attention in the race off of him and on to Colbert Busch, he said.

"The whole month goes by, the closest thing that I have as a campaign is a cardboard cutout of Pelosi because she was the only person debating me," Sanford said, referring to Pelosi's support for the super PAC behind the TV ads attacking Sanford's personal life.

"You couldn't have a debate with the candidate herself and so you're like, in desperation, saying, 'I'm going to at least debate the person who put $375,000 into my opponent's airwaves.'"

"I've never had that before," he said, exasperated.

Following his April 2 victory in the GOP primary, Sanford was knocked backwards when court documents were leaked to the press showing that Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, had filed trespassing complaints against Sanford alleging that he had routinely violated the terms of their divorce order by showing up at her home uninvited. He said the fuss was over a trip to the house to watch the Super Bowl with the youngest of his four sons, Blake, 14, who was by himself.

"I think that [voters] had largely moved past my personal life at the end of the runoff, because I would have never won that runoff if that was still the focus," Sanford said. "I think that the whole trespassing, October surprise thing brought that all back into the forefront."

Then it came out that the first time Sanford's 17-year-old son, Bolton, had ever met his mistress-turned-fiancée, Maria Belen Chapur, was at his victory party after the primary. The boy's discomfort was evident in a photograph widely published in the press.

When asked if he was damaging the most important relationships in his life by running, Sanford asked to go off the record. When reminded that his son's apparent embarrassment had been a public affair, he reached for his back pocket.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. Sanford pulled out his phone and dialed a number. The line on the other end rang for several seconds, until someone picked up.

"Hey, you have a second?" Sanford said. "What's that? Uh, I am right now at a table in Bluffton, South Carolina, with a reporter with The Huffington Post. He seems like a decent human being. We don't really know each other. He may be getting ready to blister me. I'm not sure. But he asked me a fairly probing question, um, not all of which I can answer based on, I think, on the importance of keeping family things inside the family, and keeping public things within the public realm. He nonetheless pressed, and I just would ask you … to boil the question down … just as a human being and as a dad, how I've done, and whether there's respect or not for me as a dad. I'm going to hand it over to the reporter."

He handed the phone to me. "It's Marshall," he said.

Marshall, a 20-year-old college student and the oldest of Sanford's four sons, was studying for exams. He seemed mildly irritated, but when I asked him how much of his father's question he was comfortable answering, he spoke convincingly of how he loves his dad and respects him. While there are ups and downs, he said, he thinks Sanford is a great dad.

"I've never doubted my dad's love for me," Marshall Sanford said.

The phone back in his hand, Mark Sanford said to him, "I don't know if it was good or bad, but anyway I appreciate whatever it was and I love you."

Then he got off the phone.

"Here's the larger conundrum of the exploration of one's personal life within the public sphere, which is, there's always a second half, or a second side, or another part to the story. I've never chosen to tell my story," he said. "I would love to present the other side of the case … There is a pattern here … I get it. There's still pain and hurt."

"If you were to know the full story -- well, never mind. I'd just say that life is at times more complex than meets the eye," he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misidentified Elizabeth Colbert Busch's relationship to Stephen Colbert. She is his older sister.

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