Mark Sanford needed a big debate win but came up short

April 30, 2013

Mark Sanford needed a decisive win Monday night. He didn't get one.

At best, Sanford fought to a draw against Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the only debate of the campaign. That spells trouble for the Republican, who is running out of chances to turn the tide with just a week left until Election Day.

"I don't think it was a game changer," South Carolina Republican strategist Richard Quinn said of Monday's debate, adding, "You have to give him the edge on points. But she made no huge mistakes, so she probably met or exceeded low expectations."

From the beginning, Colbert Busch aggressively challenged Sanford. She knocked his record in Congress, slammed his 2009 disappearance as governor and parried his attempts to tie her to national Democrats.

"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,” Colbert Busch declared early in the debate.

And just like that, it was clear she wasn't there to play nice.

Sanford scored some points, too. Colbert Busch once donated to the Republican's gubernatorial campaign, he noted, so he must not be so bad in her eyes. And he mentioned the words "Pelosi" and "unions" many times, applying toxic labels to his opponent in the fiscally conservative district.

But Colbert Busch, the political novice, made no major mistakes. If anything she was the aggressor in the debate, sternly rebutting Sanford's attacks at every turn.

“I want to be very clear, Mark: Nobody tells me what to do except the people of South Carolina’s 1st district,” Colbert Busch declared in response to Sanford's claim that she is a pawn of House Democratic leadership.

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.

For Sanford, the debate was also about repairing his own image, which has taken a beating the last two weeks. Having appealed for forgiveness on so many occasions since attempting his comeback, Sanford appealed for a second chance in a new way. He turned the tables when asked by a moderator whether he'd double down on his vote to impeach the nation's 42nd president.

“I would reverse the question to you,” said Sanford. “Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake that he made in his life?”

It was a response that won Sanford applause from his supporters at the debate, but not the kind of robust self-defense likely to make undecided voters flock to his corner.

Sanford's not finished yet. He will have Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in his corner, and Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is raising some much needed cash for him on Wednesday. And he is still running in a very conservative district. A comeback is still possible, just much less possible than it would have been had Monday turned out differently.

Election Day in Massachusetts: Voters head to the polls today to choose nominees for for the seat once held by Secretary of State John Kerry. Rep. Ed Markey (D) is the front-runner on the Democratic side while former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez and former U.S. attorney Mike Sullivan are the leading candidates on the GOP side. Secretary of State William Galvin is predicting lower turnout than the 2009 special election. Polls close at 8 p.m. ET. We'll have results for you on Post Politics this evening.

Fixbits:

The FBI is looking into the relationship between Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), his wife and a major donor.

Obama officially nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to be transportation secretary.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) helped inspire NBA player Jason Collins to come out as gay.

Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is running for the Senate.

Paul is laying some groundwork in South Carolina.

House Democrats' campaign arm has more than doubled its initial ad buy against Sanford.

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows signs of trouble for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R).

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) goes after "squishes."

Must-reads:

"Obama’s campaign finance reform plans have faded" -- Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post

 "All Puns Aside, Weiner Makes Lucrative Name in Consulting" -- Michael Barbaro, New York Times

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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