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Sanford aims for comeback in SC election, as poll shows dead heat

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Shown here are former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, left, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who are competing for an open House seat. (AP)

Four years after a high-profile affair left him politically tattered, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will try to stage a career comeback Tuesday, vying for an open House seat against a formidable Democratic opponent. 

Sanford, after surviving a 16-way Republican primary, will square off in a special election against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert. 

The two, along with Green Party candidate Eugene Platt, are competing for the seat in the 1st Congressional District -- one left vacant by now-Sen. Tim Scott and held by Sanford for three terms in the 1990s. 

Sanford, despite his performance in the primary, is having a tough time reclaiming that seat. Once mentioned as a potential presidential contender, Sanford watched his political career take a dive when, in 2009, he disappeared for five days under the guise of hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later admitted he had traveled to Argentina to spend time with his mistress, a woman to whom he is now engaged. 

Sanford has struggled to shed the controversy, which is still fresh in voters' minds without Colbert Busch drawing excessive attention to it. 

But a new poll shows Sanford pulling into a dead heat with his Democratic rival, after a prior survey showed him trailing by 9 points. 

The Public Policy Polling survey showed Sanford leading Colbert Busch 47-46 percent. The polling suggests Sanford's latest advertising and campaign blitz has had an effect, as he tries to tie his rival to unpopular national Democratic figures. 

One recent ad put the race in the context of a "larger battle for the direction of our country," while tying Colbert Busch to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. 

"But this contest is bigger than them or me; it's about two different visions of how we restore America and rein in Washington spending," Sanford said in the ad. 

Colbert Busch, 58, picked up the endorsement of The Post and Courier over the weekend, with the Charleston newspaper calling her "a welcome tonic" for those who suffer from what the editors called "Sanford Fatigue -- a malady caused by overexposure to all of the cringe-worthy details of his 2009 disgrace as governor, his ongoing efforts for redemption via the political process, his resurgent personal problems, etc." 

After admitting his affair, Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife, Jenny, divorced him. 

The district looks reliably Republican on paper. 

But three weeks before the special election, news surfaced that Sanford's ex-wife had filed a court complaint alleging he was in her house without permission in violation of their divorce decree. Sanford must appear in court Thursday. 

Sanford said he tried to get in touch with his ex-wife and was in the house so his youngest son would not have to watch the Super Bowl alone. 

Sanford, who turns 53 this month, has campaigned this time just as he has during much of his two-decade political career -- on the urgent need to rein in government spending and balance the budget. 

Colbert Busch has focused on her business experience in creating jobs. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.