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Sanford nomination gives Democrats hope in special election

Democrats are relishing in a surprising opportunity to possibly pick up a House seat in a solidly Republican district in South Carolina, where Mark Sanford is hoping to stage a political comeback next month.

Sanford, the embattled former governor who left office in 2011 under a cloud of scandal following an extramarital affair that publicly wrecked his marriage, officially won the Republican nomination for the May 7 special election to fill the vacancy in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district. He beat rival Republican Curtis Bostic in a runoff election with about 57 percent of the vote.

Though Sanford represented this reliably GOP district for three terms in the 1990s, he faces a tougher-than-expected challenge from Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, a Clemson University administrator and the sister of Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert.

For Sanford, a onetime conservative rock star who had once flirted with the possibility of seeking the Republican presidential nomination, next month’s special election is a shot at redemption, both personal and political. His 2009 admission of an affair with an Argentinian woman, María Belén Chapur, and bizarre subsequent explanations of his absence to pursue that affair, nearly ruined his career and left a lasting negative impression with voters that could help Colbert-Busch score an unlikely victory.

An internal poll released by the Colbert-Busch campaign earlier this week showed the Democrat leading Sanford by three points – within the poll’s margin of error, but still noteworthy for its reflection of a competitive race in this district that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won last fall by 18 points.

Sanford, speaking Wednesday on “Morning Joe,” argued that Colbert-Busch’s ability to skate to the Democratic nomination as he endured a competitive Republican primary, helped explain those numbers.

“I think that when people really begin to digest those ideas – some real strong contrasts in terms of where she would be versus where I would be – that's going to substantially change a poll that, right now, simply defines name ID as people know it, not issue ID,” he said. “And ultimately, I think debates and campaigns are ultimately decided on issues.”

Colbert-Busch benefits, too, from her brother’s celebrity and heightened media interest in the campaign. It’s for that reason that Republicans in Washington said Wednesday that they are watching the race closely, and refuse to take for granted a seat that Democrats haven’t held since 1981.

Both Republicans and Democrats generally admit that the race might not be as close if not for Sanford, and the baggage associated with his affair. But GOP sources also contend that Colbert-Busch has managed to escape most scrutiny, and that the district’s Republican-leaning voters will end up with Sanford once his Democratic opponent’s views are fully litigated over the course of the next month.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is tasked with electing GOP candidates to the House, for instance on Wednesday chided Colbert-Busch for campaigning while continuing to remain on-staff at Clemson.

“Why should South Carolina taxpayers have to foot the bill for Elizabeth Colbert Busch to campaign for Congress? We already knew Colbert Busch supported Obama and Pelosi’s big-spending policies, but now she’s taken her disregard for the taxpayers to a new low,” said NRCC spokeswoman Katie Prill.

The ultimate test of both parties’ commitment might come in the form of a check cut by the NRCC or its Democratic counterpart, the DCCC. Both sides maintain that they have not yet decided whether to spend money on television ads in this coastal South Carolina district, which could help swing the race toward either candidate.

Meanwhile, Democrats are eager to have Sanford available as a public face of the GOP over the next month, if not more. South Carolina Democrats on Wednesday eagerly reminded reporters of the letter written by state Republican lawmakers (including now-U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R) to Sanford in 2009, which asked for his resignation (Sanford declined). The letter called Sanford’s actions during his affair an example of “poor decision making and questionable leadership.”

Sanford’s bid for a comeback also comes as Republicans nationally seek to overhaul their image, and broaden the GOP’s appeal among Hispanics, young voters and women – three groups among whom the party suffered during last fall’s election.

“The last thing they [Republicans] need is Mark Sanford to be their public face,” a Democratic campaign source said in anticipation of the bruising – and increasingly nationalized – campaign set to play out over the next few weeks.