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Colbert Busch leads Sanford in South Carolina congressional race: poll

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford pauses as he addresses the media at a news conference at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina Se
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford pauses as he addresses the media at a news conference at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina Se

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch has a nine-point lead over former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, her Republican opponent in the race for the state's open congressional seat, according to a poll released on Monday.

In the first independent poll taken since the primary election, Colbert Busch was favored by likely voters 50 percent to Sanford's 41 percent, Public Policy Polling said.

Colbert Busch, a businesswoman making her first run for public office, is the sister of television comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert.

As governor, Sanford famously disappeared from the state in 2009 to visit his mistress in Argentina while telling aides that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sanford formerly held the congressional seat between 1995 and 2001.

The National Republican Congressional Committee announced last week that it would no longer take part in Sanford's campaign after revelations that his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, had accused him in court documents of trespassing at her home.

Sanford said he had gone to his ex-wife's house in February while she was out of town to watch the Super Bowl with one of their sons and that he had been unable to reach her to ask for the permission required under their divorce settlement.

The Public Policy poll showed 56 percent of likely voters surveyed rated Sanford unfavorably and 51 percent said the trespassing allegations gave them doubts about his fitness for public office.

Sixty-five percent of Republicans surveyed, however, said the trespassing accusations did not give them any doubts about him.

The election will be held on May 7 to fill the seat left vacant when Republican Congressman Tim Scott was appointed to the Senate.

"Elizabeth Colbert Busch is now looking like a clear favorite in the special election," Dean Debnam, president of the polling firm, said in a statement.

The poll surveyed 796 likely voters from April 19 to 21 and had an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Colbert Busch has not commented on the trespassing issue. She plans to hold a rally for women and in support of women's issues on Wednesday in Charleston.

Sanford said he will make 15 campaign stops this week. He criticized Colbert Busch, who has refused to make joint appearances, of running a "stealth campaign."

The two will face off on Monday night in Charleston in the first, and likely only candidates' debate.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Andrew Hay)