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Both Sides In Sanford, Colbert Busch Race Hopeful In Last Hours

South Carolina's latest contribution to the American political stage: a House race between a former governor whose extramarital affair provided unlimited fodder for TV comedians, and a rookie candidate whose brother happens to be one of the them.

As the tight race between Mark Sanford, who served two terms as governor, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of the noted satirist Stephen Colbert, drew to a close Tuesday, one thing was certain: South Carolina had generated yet another exquisite political spectacle.

A win by the Republican Sanford would launch a spate of stories about his political redemption after an affair that ended his marriage and, for a time at least, his career in elected office. A victory by Colbert Busch, the Democrat, would deliver yet another example of a flawed GOP candidate fumbling away a seemingly safe Republican seat.

The latest polling suggested a photo finish to the special election for the Charleston-area 1st Congressional District seat, which became vacant when Republican Tim Scott was named to the U.S. Senate.

Scott filled the seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who left Congress to run the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.

With the polls closing at 7 p.m. EDT, it could be an early night. Or a very long night, followed by perhaps a recount, if the race is as close as one recent poll suggested.

The congressional district has been reliably Republican for years -- Sanford himself represented it prior to winning the governorship. In 2012, President Obama lost the district to Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points.

But Sanford's personal troubles -- leaving the popular former first lady Jenny Sanford for an Argentine mistress who is now his fiancee, followed by unfavorable publicity surrounding his February trespassing at Jenny Sanford's home in violation of their divorce agreement -- made the race more competitive than Democrats could've hoped.

Indeed, Colbert Busch had appeared to open a lead over Sanford in the polls until a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, the Democratic pollster, showed the former governor apparently surging, with a statistically insignificant 1-percentage-point lead.

Colbert Busch's election-night chances turn largely on winning over Republicans and independents, especially women. She also needs to maximize African-American turnout. Sanford is counting on GOP voters being more disgusted with the Democratic Party than with his transgressions.

Both the South Carolina Republican and Democratic parties found cause for optimism in what they were seeing up through Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm hearing that there's higher turnout than expected," said Alex Stroman, executive director for the South Carolina Republican Party. "I know that absentee counts were higher in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester [counties]. The voting is up and Republican precincts like those in Mount Pleasant are above average. And so that's excellent for Gov. Sanford. ...

"Gov. Sanford definitely has momentum here in the past couple of days and Republican voters are coming home. And that Elizabeth Colbert Busch, if she were elected to Congress, would be absolutely out of touch with low-country values. And I think that's what you're seeing in the election."

Kristin Sosanie, communications director for the South Carolina Democratic Party, read the turnout differently.

"We're hearing that Charleston turnout, especially, is pretty high, which is a good thing for Elizabeth, for sure," Sosanie said. "Generally people are tending to be pretty engaged. Mark Sanford definitely has the advantage in terms of voter registration.

"But, we've heard stories, especially up to today, even today, people are still coming up to Elizabeth and saying that they support her, but from Republicans, Republican women, Republican men, independents, who just don't want to vote for Mark Sanford, have had enough of his kind of politics and they really support Elizabeth because she's more moderate."

Laura Woliver, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, explained that voter turnout will be "the crux of the whole matter. ... If it's a high turnout, my guess is it would be for Colbert Busch.

"I don't think people are excitedly turning out for Sanford," Woliver said. "They would be dutifully turning out for Sanford if they're Republicans. But if there's a high turnout for this race, which usually would have a low turnout (as an off-year, special election), I would guess that it would be good news for Colbert Busch."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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