By I-Hsien Sherwood ( | First Posted: Apr 30, 2013 05:24 PM EDT

Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Mark Sanford met in their first and only debate before the South Carolina special election for the House of Representatives a week from now.

Colbert Busch portrayed herself as a fiscally conservative Democrat with staunchly progressive opinions on social issues like same-sex marriage. Sanford, who is trailing by 9 points in the latest polls, went on the offensive, trying to paint his opponent as far too liberal while hoping to avid talk of his own indiscretions.

In 2009, Sanford was the governor of South Carolina, but he disappeared for a week. It later turned out he was in Argentina having an affair, a dalliance paid for with state funds. He was forced to resign by the state legislature a year later, but now he is trying to make his political comeback, mistress-turned-fiancée and angry ex-wife in tow.

Colbert Busch has her own claim to fame: she is the sister of faux-conservative comedian Stephen Colbert, who has actually shed his public persona at times to seriously stump for her.

While that seems to be helping her cause, much of her recent success seems to be backlash directed against Sanford.

South Carolina's First District stretches along the coast of the state, encompassing the relatively liberal enclaves of Charleston and Myrtle Beach, as well as the heavily red areas surrounding them. In 2012, the district went for Republican Mitt Romney by 18 points. Fewer than 700,000 people live there, so Colbert the comedian's influence is likely to be limited.

Instead, local politics reign supreme. Many South Carolinians were appalled at Sanford's behavior several years ago. Evangelical Christians were upset at the flagrant violation of his marriage vows, nationalists hated that the object of his affection was a foreigner, and fiscal conservatives railed against his use of public funds for his own ends and his subsequent cover up of the act.

Colbert Busch drove the last point home during the debate. "You didn't tell the truth. In fact, you turned around and did the opposite," she said. "When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose."

For his part, Sanford ignored the comment about his finances and attacked his opponent for her perceived ties to Democrats outside the state -- playing to local pride and fears of the Obama administration.

"I don't think Nancy Pelosi gives $370,000 expecting you not to vote for speaker," said Sanford, referring to money Colbert Busch's campaign has received from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official funding arm of the national Democratic Party.

Sanford's campaign was receiving similar funding from the equivalent organization on the Republican side, the National Republican Congressional Committee, until recently, when the NRCC pulled its support for Sanford after allegations leaked that he has been charged with trespassing at his ex-wife's home.

Sanford has been scrambling to raise funds since then, and the bad press precipitated a 7-point drop in the polls.

In response, to Sanford's accusation, Colbert Busch got in one of her biggest applause lines of the night. "I want to be very clear, Mark. No one tells me what do, except for the people of South Carolina's First Congressional District," she said.

While it seems more people currently support Colbert Busch, interest in the campaign in general is low, and the election may be decided on turnout. Democrats usually have lower turnout in special elections and years when there is no presidential election, so that could help Sanford.

In addition, the Republicans could be sending Sanford on a suicide mission. Whoever wins this election will have to run again in 2014, so the Republicans might be stepping out of Colbert Busch's way, biding their time to strengthen a better candidate for next year: Sanford's embattled and popular ex-wife Jenny.

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