By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Former Governor Mark Sanford deflected criticism of an extramarital affair leveled in a debate on Monday by his opponent for a South Carolina congressional seat, political newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
Sanford, a Republican, is hoping to revive his political career after he famously disappeared from the state in 2009 while he was governor to visit his mistress in Argentina, telling aides that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Colbert Busch, the sister of television comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert, is a Democratic businesswoman making her first run for public office.
The election to fill the seat left vacant when Republican congressman Tim Scott was appointed to the Senate will be held on May 7.
Sanford formerly held the congressional seat between 1995 and 2001. In addition to the affair, he has been hurt by accusations by his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, that he trespassed on her property.
"Some in the national media seem to think it's a race between Jenny Sanford and Stephen Colbert," moderator John Avlon said in opening the debate.
For the most part, the candidates sought to prove otherwise.
While they spent much of the debate carving out their differences on federal spending and immigration, the debate's most peculiar moment came when Colbert Busch raised the Appalachian Trail incident but failed to get a reaction out of Sanford, who said he had not heard the jab.
"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.
Amid boos and laughter from the audience, Sanford said: "I couldn't hear what she said."
"Repeat it, I didn't hear it, I'm sorry," he said.
COLBERT BUSCH LEADS POLL
A Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month found Colbert Busch leading among likely voters 50 percent to Sanford's 41 percent.
The poll followed the revelation that Sanford's ex-wife had accused him in court documents of trespassing at her home, and the National Republican Congressional Committee's announcement it would no longer take part in Sanford's campaign.
Sanford said he had gone to his ex-wife's house in February while she was out of town to watch the Super Bowl with one of their sons and that he had been unable to reach her to ask for the permission required under their divorce settlement.
For much of the debate, Sanford sought to remind voters of his conservative credentials, while Colbert Busch sought to dismiss Sanford's claim that, if elected, she would do the bidding of labor unions and her liberal supporters in Congress.
"I want to be very clear, Mark," Colbert Busch said. "Nobody tells me what to do. I am a fiscally conservative, independent tough businesswoman. Let's talk about reaching across the aisles and being practical."
Colbert Busch, business development director of Clemson University's Restoration Institute, said that, if elected, she would cut her own salary by $10,000.
Sanford touted his record of fiscal conservatism in three terms in Congress and two terms as governor.
"I would look back on my time in Congress as a short patch in Washington when budgets were actually balanced. I was against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool," he said.
On immigration reform, Sanford argued for a more robust guest worker program and an extended "low-tech fence."
Colbert Busch said she supports legislation in the U.S. Senate that offers a "tough and fair" path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
While Colbert Busch's famous brother did not come up, Sanford did get one other opportunity to address the scandal that derailed his political career.
Asked if he regretted voting for President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998, after Clinton admitted to an affair, Sanford responded by saying he would reframe the question.
"Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for a mistake he made in his life for the rest of his life?" Sanford said.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Edith Honan and Eric Beech)