CHARLESTON -- In the first debate between the two Republicans vying to represent the 1st Congressional District, candidate Curtis Bostic characterized Mark Sanford as a "compromised candidate" because of his 2009 secret exit from the state and a "Mr. No" with a record of failing to bring people together to accomplish reforms.
Sanford pushed back, saying Bostic voted in favor of Charleston County budgets that increased spending and missed meetings during his time on county council there.
The Charleston event, sponsored by the S.C. Republican Party, marked the first time the two have faced off one-on-one after last week's GOP primary. Sanford, the former governor, grabbed 37 percent of the vote, pushing a message of limited spending, while Bostic finished second with 13 percent, buoyed by the district's social conservatives.
Before a packed auditorium at Porter-Gaud School, Sanford touted his experience -- three terms in Congress and two terms as governor. He said he consistently fought against spending.
Bostic highlighted his time as a Marine and his history of bringing people together to accomplish big things, including bringing the Boeing airliner plant to Charleston County while a county council member.
"What we need is not just a 'Mr. No.' We need someone who pulls people together," Bostic said. He characterized Sanford as a stubborn governor unwilling to work with others as evidenced by 88 percent of his vetoes being overridden by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Statehouse Republicans often complained of Sanford's unwillingness to compromise and work with them to accomplish goals.
Sanford responded that his "war on spending" got big results including tort reform and government restructuring at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Motor Vehicles that reduced wait times "and had a real effect in people's lives on a daily basis."
Ultimately, moderator David Webb, a satellite radio broadcaster, brought up Sanford's 2009 troubles during which he secretly left the country to carry on an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina who is now his fiancè.
"If you live long enough, you're going to fail at something. And I failed very publicly," said Sanford, using the phrases he's repeated often on the campaign trail.
He added he spent a year "wallowing in it" and soul searching at his family's Beaufort County farm but ultimately decided he still had something to offer.
Bostic shot back that S.C. Democrats are united behind nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch and excited at the prospect of winning the congressional seat -- a feat he thinks they could accomplish if Sanford is the GOP nominee.
"We will lose this and lose it because of this issue of trust," said Bostic, adding that Sanford, a "compromised candidate," is not what is needed now.
Bostic had said at the onset of the race he would run a positive campaign.
Sanford responded that the race will come down to the issues, and that Colbert Busch's stance does not align with those of district voters.
Front-runner Sanford had ammunition of his own, taking shots at Bostic's absenteeism during his time on county council and "yes" votes on burgeoning county budgets.
Bostic acknowledged those votes, saying most of the increases were because Charleston County voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2004 to fund transportation and mass transit projects. And while he opposed the increased spending, he did not think it appropriate to vote against county budgets that included spending voters wanted.
He said his absences were related to his wife's battle with cancer.
After the debate, Bostic's campaign manager expressed dismay that Sanford made the absences a campaign issue.
"While South Carolina politics have always been known for negative tactics, Mark Sanford may have just reached a new low," David O'Connell said.
He did not answer questions about whether all absences were related to the treatments.
Former S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said he, too, was surprised Sanford brought up the absences if they were indeed related to Bostic's wife receiving treatment for cancer.
"I'm not sure why the guy out front (leading in the race) would take that shot," Dawson said. "Maybe this race is tighter than people think."
Bostic did not respond to Sanford's remark that he had not filed a required report with the U.S. House that shows the financial interests of candidates. O'Connell has said the campaign filed a 60-day extension to ensure it had time to accurately fill out the paperwork.