By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - In a House race where personalities have overshadowed politics, Democratic Party newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch's message often has been lost in the din.
The first-time candidate has tried to present herself as strong on jobs and education while opponents accuse her of cashing in on the celebrity of her well-known brother, TV political satirist Stephen Colbert.
In campaign appearances she has largely avoided taking swipes at Republican Party opponent Mark Sanford who while South Carolina governor in 2009 disappeared for days, telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was, in fact, visiting his mistress in Argentina.
That hasn't kept his foibles out of the race.
A barrage of negative political ads have highlighted Sanford's personal lapses, while his ex-wife Jenny Sanford accused him of violating their divorce agreement by trespassing at her home. That prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee last month to drop its financial support of Sanford's campaign.
The focus on personalities appears to have played out in favor of Colbert Busch, who political analysts say has a legitimate chance of winning the May 7 special election in a heavily Republican district.
"These latest allegations against Sanford have led a number of those voters who were on the fence to not plan to vote at all or to switch sides to Colbert Busch," said Kendra Stewart, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.
"She has an advantage among independents, and she is actually pulling some Republicans, especially Republican women," Stewart said.
A victory for Colbert Busch, 58, would make her the first Democrat to represent the state's coastal First Congressional District since the early 1980s and only the second woman in South Carolina to be elected to Congress.
Sanford appeared to hold an early edge in the contest to replace Tim Scott, who vacated his House seat after being appointed to the Senate. Despite Sanford's affair scandal, he had broad name recognition and held the seat in the Republican-leaning district from 1995 to 2001.
He is now engaged to marry the woman he visited in Argentina, journalist Maria Belen Chapur.
A Public Policy Polling survey released on April 22, shortly after Jenny Sanford's trespassing accusation in February became public, showed likely voters preferred Colbert Busch over Sanford 50 percent to 41 percent. Campaign finance records show she has raised nearly $1.2 million to Sanford's $788,000.
Leslie Turner, head of a group called Republicans For Colbert Busch, said she decided to support the Democratic candidate after realizing she was "pretty moderate."
"We can't afford to send Mark Sanford back to Washington because we simply don't trust him," Turner said at a campaign event last week.
Colbert Busch, the business development director of Clemson University's Restoration Institute who previously worked in the shipping industry, touts herself as a fiscal conservative.
"I've been in business for 25 years," she told Reuters in an interview. "When you're in global trade, you understand currency impacts, you understand political impacts and social impacts and what kind of impact does that have on your business."
A married mother of three who is known to family and friends as Lulu, her young adulthood was shaped by tragedy. She was in college when her father and two of her 10 siblings died in a plane crash in 1974.
In her first political race, she has struggled to make sure people knew how to say her name. Unlike her brother Stephen, who has hosted fund-raising events for her, Colbert Busch pronounces their last name as "Col-burt" with a hard "t" rather than "Col-bear" preferred by him.
At times, she also scrambled to find her political legs during the constricted four-month campaign season. Critics say she has failed to address issues and policy in depth.
Sanford, 52, accuses her of having ties to unions and to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, saying Colbert Busch has been bought by the national party.
"We've talked a lot about how with the support my opponent is receiving from Nancy Pelosi and friends - to the tune of $1 million - that she'll be anything but an independent voice in Washington," Sanford said in a statement this week.
Colbert Busch insisted that "nobody tells me what to do" during a debate on Monday when the moderator opened the night by saying some "in the national media seem to think it's a race between Jenny Sanford and Stephen Colbert."
Later that evening, Colbert Busch took one of her few public jabs at Sanford's past troubles, criticizing his use of state money in 2009 to visit Chapur in Argentina.
To many, it was the debate's most memorable moment.
College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said Colbert Busch held her own against her more seasoned opponent.
"She did a really good job of going after him, which can galvanize those folks that are on the fence and also motivate her base," he said.
Among those who thought Sanford would win before the trespass complaint became public, Knotts said he was surprised to see a Democrat be so competitive in a race in the Deep South.
"I think it's a real tossup," he said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Paul Thomasch and Grant McCool)