It was a tale of two debate strategies Monday night in South Carolina.

A lively Elizabeth Colbert Busch struck early and often against Mark Sanford's record in Congress and as governor while Sanford hit back with consistent attempts to tie his opponent to Democratic congressional leaders in the only debate in South Carolina's special election campaign.

About 25 minutes in, Colbert Busch raised Sanford's widely publicized 2009 disappearance as governor in a discussion about fiscal matters.

"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 said, implicitly referring to his trip to Argentina to visit his then-mistress and now fiancee.

"I couldn't hear what she said," Sanford replied.

"Answer the question," Colbert Busch responded sternly, prompting Sanford to return to a discussion about sequestration.

Law enforcement officials concluded that Sanford did not improperly use state money to pay for trips to New York and South America to see his Argentinian mistress.

In another heated exchange, Sanford slammed Colbert Busch for once donating to his gubernatorial campaign. "I would just humbly suggest on that one, that if it was not simply a political statement at this moment, I don't think you would have written me a $500 check after I left the United States Congress as I began to run for governor," he said, responding to Colbert's Busch criticism of his congressional record. Sanford represented the 1st district for six years before running for governor in 2002.

"I'm really glad you brought that up," Colbert Busch replied. Sanford, she said, "didn't tell the truth" about his positions when he was running. "You turned around and did the opposite," the Democrat added.

Sanford sought time and again to tie Colbert Busch to Democratic interests by way of the thousands of dollars she has taken from unions and the support she has received from outside groups trying to build a Democratic House majority. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC have been running ads slamming Sanford.

"[House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi is running hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads, and what's interesting here is that she has been a major force in the advocacy of Obamacare," Sanford said after Colbert Busch explained that she agreed with some parts of the federal health care law and disagreed with others.

"I want to be very clear, Mark: Nobody tells me what to do except the people of South Carolina's 1st district," Colbert Busch responded sharply.

At one point, Sanford turned the table on one of the moderators to implicitly underscore his plea for forgiveness and belief in second chances, a point he has previously made.

"You voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and to impeach President Clinton for an extramarital affair," one of the three moderators asked the former governor. "Would you vote those ways again?"

"I would reverse the question to you," replied 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?"

The debate comes with eight days left until Election Day. Colbert Busch has seized the momentum in the race, outraising Sanford and enjoying the support of Democratic outside groups as national Republicans have abandoned Sanford. Sanford also has been forced to respond to the revelation that his ex-wife accused him of trespassing on her property.

Sanford and Colbert Busch disagreed on a host of policy issues Monday night, ranging from education to immigration and gay marriage. Sanford said he opposes the Senate's "Gang of Eight" immigration bill while Colbert Busch said she favors it. Colbert Busch said she supports gay marriage and Sanford said the matter should be left to states.

Sanford wrapped up by calling the current fiscal debate a "tipping point" and asserted that his record and experience makes him the better candidate on spending.

Colbert Busch closed the debate by pledging to take a 10 percent pay cut if elected.