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Accusations sting Mark Sanford’s congressional campaign, poll finds

By Andrew Shain
ashain@thestate.com

Former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford’s return to politics is running into a problem – Sanford himself.

A poll taken over the weekend, after news broke that Sanford’s ex-wife had filed a trespassing complaint against him, found Democratic challenger Elizabeth Colbert Busch extending her lead over Sanford in the May 7 special election for the 1st District congressional seat.

Colbert Busch, a political newcomer and sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert, led Sanford by a margin of 50 percent to 41 percent, according to the poll released Monday by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. Colbert Busch led Sanford 47-45 in a Public Policy survey taken nearly a month ago.

Sanford is trying to regain the seat in Congress that he held for six years before serving two terms as governor. He left the Governor’s Mansion in 2011 under a cloud, having been divorced by his wife over an affair and paying a state-record $74,000 in ethics fines.

Sanford was the presumed favorite in his comeback bid, winning a 16-candidate Republican primary in the Lowcountry district, which overwhelmingly went for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney over Democratic President Barack Obama.

But the trespassing accusation raised doubts among 51 percent of voters, the new poll found, and, now, Sanford is fighting an uphill battle against Colbert Busch.

“She is in the position she’s in because of Mark Sanford,” Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said. “A lot of Republicans have lost enthusiasm. I don’t know if he can get the social conservatives back into the tent. I think all oxygen has been sucked out.”

Public Policy says it results show “Colbert Busch is now looking like a clear favorite.”

Republicans dispute that.

They pointed to Public Policy’s reputation as a Democratic-leaning firm. The poll released Monday surveyed 796 likely voters. But those voters favored Romney by just 5 percentage points, instead of the GOP nominee’s 18-point win in the district in November, Republicans said.

Buchanan said the poll leans a little too heavily toward Democrats. He thinks Colbert Busch’s lead is more like two or three percentage points. That would put the race within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In the wake of last week’s trespassing allegation, Sanford has resumed public events, attending the RBC Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head over the weekend and starting a weeklong tour of the district.

He also has resumed attacks on Colbert Busch for agreeing to only one debate and using TV ads paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Republican National Congressional Committee dropped its support of Sanford after the trespassing complaint. Sanford’s campaign also told The Daily Caller that it had cancelled a fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday in Washington that was slated to include the GOP members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation.

Sanford’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the poll. Colbert Busch’s campaign had no comment.

The Associated Press broke a story last week that former S.C. first lady Jenny Sanford had filed a complaint against her ex-husband for trespassing at her Sullivan’s Island home in violation of their divorce agreement.

Mark Sanford said he entered her home so their 14-year-old son would not be alone watching the second half of the Super Bowl. He said he could not reach his ex-wife ahead of time. A hearing on the complaint is scheduled for May 9, two days after the special election.

Sanford took out a full-page ad in The (Charleston) Post and Courier Sunday to explain his side of the story and remind voters about his record of fighting government spending. In the ad, he evoked the battle of the Alamo. “I’m outnumbered right now, but will fight to the end toward freedom and financial sanity in Washington to sustaining it,” he wrote.

Sanford’s favorability has risen since last month’s Public Policy poll – up four percentage points to 38 percent – but it remains below Colbert Busch’s. The Democrat’s favorability stood at 56 percent over the weekend, a spike from 45 percent in March, the poll found. Colbert Busch held a large lead – 57 percent to 37 percent – over Sanford in favorability among women, who make up a majority of voters in the district.

The special election is being held to replace Tim Scott, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley last year to fill Jim DeMint’s unexpired U.S. Senate term. DeMint resigned to become the head of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Reach Shain at (803) 200-1760.
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