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Appalachian Trail not forgotten: Women voters still wary of Mark Sanford

Monday's debate in the South Carolina congressional race between former Gov. Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch underscored Sanford's problems with women voters.

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Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch (l.) looks at former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford as she answers a question during the First Congressional District debate on Monday in Charleston S.C.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

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After avoiding the subject for months, Elizabeth Colbert Busch finally brought up Mark Sanford's 2009 taxpayer-funded trip to Argentina "for a personal purpose" at Monday night's debate, only a week out from a May 7 special congressional election.

Ms. Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central parodist Stephen Colbert and a Democrat, is up by a stunning 9 points in a district that last sent a Democrat to Congress in 1978. So the move to bring up the former governor's 2009 disappearance from office – ostensibly to hike the Appalachian Trail but in reality to visit a mistress – could speak to worries about closing the deal or to a desire to hammer the final nail in Mr. Sanford's political comeback.

Whatever the impetus, the dig struck straight at Sanford's greatest political weakness – his views about and treatment of women, and how his past and present actions play with women, who make up 55 percent of voters in the district and trend fiscally conservative but socially moderate.

The apparent failure so far by Sanford to win over conservative women voters looms large in the contest – arguably larger than Colbert Busch's competent campaign or the broader philosophical and political issues in the race, including the debate about the federal government's role in rehabilitating the Port of Charleston.

"Mark Sanford seems to be the Todd Akin of this special election, meaning it's more about him than about her," says Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.

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