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TODAY   |  April 30, 2013

Sanford, Colbert Busch face off in fiery debate

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and his Democratic rival Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of Stephen Colbert, faced off at the Citadel in South Carolina in their battle to fill a vacant Congressional seat. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports.

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>>> now to the fight to fill north carolina 's congressional seat. mark sanford bid to salvage his career and elizabeth colbert -bush's desire to start one collided in a spirited debate. kelly o'donnell, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning. this was already a race to watch. now turn it up a notch. after a debate that delivered surprises and the south carolina crowd turned rowdy. this was a face-off between a political newcomer, a nationally known former governor looking for his comeback, and his nationally known episode of marital infidelity while he was governor.

>> this is an important point.

>> reporter: a fiery debate monday night at the citadel in charleston, south carolina , marked the first and only meeting of former republican governor mark sanford and democrat elizabeth colbert -bush, locked in a battle to fill a vacant congressional seat. bush is the sister of stephen colbert who helped her raise campaign money. sanford 's political career was derailed in 2009 after he disappeared and lied about hiking the appalachian trail when in reality the then married governor was visiting his mistress in argentina.

>> i developed a relationship.

>> reporter: a scandal that colbert -bush wasn't afraid to use to her advantage.

>> when we talk about fiscal spending and protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose. [ applause ]

>> reporter: sanford said he hadn't heard the comment.

>> i couldn't hear what she said. [ laughter ]

>> repeat it. i didn't hear it. i'm sorry.

>> answer the question.

>> what was the question?

>> reporter: clearly everyone on the debate stage and in the debate hall heard what she said and he was pretending in that moment he didn't. there is a rule, i think, in south carolina . keep your dirty laundry to yourself. he hasn't been very good at that.

>> the mistress is now mark sanford 's fiancee. the special election is a week from today. sanford had been expected to easily win this because it was in a heavily republican district. his poll numbers dropped after news that his former wife accused him of trespassing at her home. sanford said he was visiting their sons but it raised concerns about his personal struggles at a time bush had pulled ahead with lots of buzz and attention. savannah?

>> kelly o'donnell in wash washington,