Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch Debate at The Citadel

In the only scheduled debate in the South Carolina first congressional district, Mark Sanford was pretty good, Elizabeth Colbert Busch wasn’t bad, and the blows they exchanged at The Citadel might indicate a tightening race.

First Colbert Busch. She was charming and polite. Running in a district that went about 60% for Mitt Romney, she knows being identified as a national Democrat is a losing strategy. So, she emphasized her independence.

She can’t run away from some of her liberal positions, so she positioned herself as a moderate, independent-minded South Carolina Democrat. She came out as pro-choice, referenced Dick Cheney on her support for gay marriage, and toed a careful line of supporting the Second Amendment while also calling for more background checks on gun purchases.

Colbert Busch scored a winning point in her closing statement by announcing she would take a 10% pay cut once she’s in Congress. It’s mostly a symbolic move, kind of like reducing the deficit by eliminating those gold presidential dollar coins, but it definitely plays well to a populace tired of career politicians. Although without a past record and needing to eschew any connections to Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Colbert Busch mainly avoided specifics. This tactic reduced many of her statements and rebuttals to simple platitudes.

Sanford, on the other hand, has won five career elections, had specifics to draw upon, and he was prepared with rebuttals. The only time he was noticeably knocked off his game was in a not-so-veiled reference to leaving the state for “personal business.” He stuttered for a couple seconds, but seemed to bounce back to his feet.

He also effectively invoked Nancy Pelosi’s constant fundraising for Colbert Busch. Although it became audibly tiresome for many, it was clearly an attempt to discredit Colbert Busch as a moderate independent Democrat. For Sanford to win, he will need to convince voters that if they rebuke him for the first time in his career, it will be for a foot soldier in Nancy Pelosi’s liberal caucus. The exasperated responses on Twitter might also hint that Sanford’s plan is working.

This round went for Sanford, but polls still show Colbert Busch with a lead. I’m no conspiracy-monger when it comes to polls, but in a district as heavily Republican as the first, voter turn-out matters more than polls. If enough Republicans decide Sanford’s personal foibles do not outweigh a potential Nancy Pelosi disciple, Sanford can win.

That will still be tough after the NRCC pulled the plug on Sanford after the trespassing allegations were publicized. However, this might help Sanford turn this into a race against Nancy Pelosi and the establishment GOP.

To boost that, Yahoo News is now reporting that Sen. Rand Paul will be endorsing Sanford in the near future. Sen. Paul’s father, Ron Paul, endorsed Sanford last week. The father’s endorsement probably means less than the son’s right now, but it still plays into the motif of Sanford vs. the Dark Forces of Politics.

The special election is one week from Tuesday. Elizabeth Colbert Busch debated like a candidate with a tenuous lead and didn’t do anything to finish off her opponent. Mark Sanford displayed all the talents that have made him a formidable politician. He was upbeat, grinning, and ready for just about all of his opponent’s attacks.

He’s not dead yet.