Republican Mark Sanford’s campaign for South Carolina’s open House seat was slumping two weeks ago when he gambled on a stunt many at the time ridiculed: He “debated” a life-size poster-photo of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The move, which many compared with Clint Eastwood “conversation” with an empty stool meant to be President Obama at last year’s Republican convention, was staged as a protest over what he said was a refusal by his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, to agree to multiple debates ahead of Tuesday’s special election.
But his main motivation was to portray his opponent as an uncompromising liberal in lock step with Mrs. Pelosi and other national Democrats — a political death knell in the staunchly Republican coastal Carolina district.
Mrs. Colbert Busch — sister of TV comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert — has pushed back, saying she would be an independent voice for the district. But the faux debate, and Mr. Sanford’s follow-up attacks, gained traction, and his campaign since has surged.
“It was a reminder that the Democratic Party nationally has a lot of different positions than the majority of the 1st District,” said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at South Carolina’s College of Charleston.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district, which includes Charleston, by 18 percentage points over President Obama last November.
“I think that [fake debate] did work and I think it was a smart way to tie — not just her to a particularly individual — but [her] to the amount of money that came in” to her campaign from Democrats nationally, Mr. Knotts said.
By Sunday, a poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed the race had become a toss-up, with Mr. Sanford ahead by 47 percent to 46 percent. Only two weeks earlier, a PPP survey had Mr. Sanford trailing by 9 percentage points.
Mr. Sanford once was a rising star in the Republican Party who was whispered as a possible 2012 presidential candidate. But his reputation and career unraveled after he infamously disappeared in 2009, officially to “hike the Appalachian Trail,” while instead traveling to Argentina to visit his mistress.
He quietly finished his second term as governor in early 2011 and kept a low profile since jumping into the House race this year.
His career seemed on the rebound after he won his party’s primary last month to fill the congressional seat vacated when Mr. Scott was appointed to the Senate. But he was back in the headlines last month for the wrong reasons when his ex-wife, Jenny, filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing on her property during the Super Bowl.
But momentum shifted to Mr. Sanford’s in recent days. And with election day rain possibly tempering Democratic voter turnout — critical to Mrs. Colbert Busch in a district where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats — many political experts say the former governor is in good position to win back the same House seat he held from 1995 to 2001.
“I would give a tiny edge — a tiny edge — to Sanford pulling it out simply because [the district is] so Republican,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s close but it will be truly be a surprise if Sanford loses it.”
Yet political forces likely will make it difficult for the winner to repeat in the 2014 election.
Mr. Sanford has been shunned by much of the Republican Party establishment since his 2009 scandal. If he wins, the Republican establishment expectantly would put its weight behind a formidable opponent in the 2014 GOP primary.