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The political race many had anticipated would unfold in the 1st Congressional District — the national comedian’s sister versus the once-disgraced governor angling for a comeback — is finally here.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford won Tuesday’s GOP runoff, 57 percent to 43 percent, over former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic, according to unofficial results.

Sanford now faces five more weeks of campaigning before a May 7 showdown with Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, whose business background and moderate politics are expected to make for an unusually competitive contest.

“The toughest race out of all these is coming up,” said former Berkeley GOP Chairman Tim Callanan as he waited for Sanford to speak.

After Sanford thanked supporters, family and his fiancee, Maria Belen Chapur, who made a surprise appearance Tuesday night, he began sounding out themes that separate him from Colbert Busch.

Those include whether health care should be predominantly government’s role or based on free-market principles, whether the National Labor Relations Board should decide if Boeing can add jobs in South Carolina, and whether Washington, D.C., will get its financial house in order.

“If you go into a general election, I think there are some real contrasts that don’t exist in a primary,” he said.

Democrats ‘motivated’

Colbert Busch released a statement late Tuesday, saying Sanford “simply has the wrong values for our community.”

She predicted “a vigorous campaign that focuses on creating jobs, balancing our country’s budget and choosing an independent-minded leader who shares the values of the great people of South Carolina.”

S.C. Federation of GOP Women Chairwoman Charm Altman said she has heard that Sanford is weaker among women voters because of what unfolded in 2009, when he left the country to visit Chapur, then his mistress.

That almost got him impeached, led to his divorce from his wife Jenny and eventually to a record ethics fine.

“My Bible says we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Altman said. “He just needs to keep standing on his record.”

Sanford often has owned up to his 2009 implosion, but asked voters not to judge him any more on his worst day than on his best day, and has said his failings have brought him a new humility that Washington needs.

“I want to thank my God,” Sanford said. “I used to cringe when somebody would say, ‘Ok, I want to thank my God.’ At that point, I would say, ‘OK, this is getting uncomfortable,’ but once you’ve really received God’s grace and seen it reflected in others, you cannot stop for a moment and publicly acknowledge that grace.”

Sanford said Chapur’s appearance at Tuesday’s party — the first time most have seen her in the campaign so far — surprised him. “I said she’s going to show up when she wants to show up. She did exactly that tonight. She surprised me. I didn’t know she was coming, but I’m excited to see her.”

The last close 1st District race, in 2008, also featured a Republican man versus a Democratic woman. Incumbent Rep. Henry Brown squeaked by Linda Ketner, 52-48 percent.

Callanan noted that Democrats’ relative lack of success poses its own challenge for Republicans. “They’re high intensity,” he said. “They’ve been waiting. They’re motivated.”

Spotlight on S.C.

The race is expected to attract more national attention than almost any congressional contest, in part because of its well-known participants and because it’s a special election in a world where the news cycle never ends.

Just moments after media outlets declared Sanford the winner, U.S. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged her extensive list of online subscribers to help “fight back” against Sanford, according to buzzfeed.com.

Lowcountry voters haven’t elected a Democrat from the 1st District for more than three decades, but Colbert Busch already has shown an ability to raise money, a necessity in modern politics, partly thanks to her younger brother, Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central.

CNN reported Tuesday that Colbert plans to host two fundraisers for his big sister in New York and Washington soon.

First District GOP Chairman Jim Davis said the upcoming race “will attract a lot of people, a lot of attention and a lot of conversation — and a little of it may be about the issues, the substance.”

Sanford’s win matched the prediction of a recent Public Policy Polling poll, which also showed him in a dead heat in a match-up with Colbert Busch.

Tuesday’s turnout was about 10 percent, down slightly from the 12 percent who voted in the Republican primary two weeks ago.

Will the GOP unite?

It’s unclear how many of Sanford’s 15 former GOP rivals will help him. Only one, former Bush White House official Jonathan Hoffman, stood with Sanford as he gave his speech Tuesday night.

Bostic’s concession speech came in front of about 75 supporters gathered at his West Ashley law office and did not include an immediate endorsement of Sanford. Bostic said he would wait at least a day, until the dust settles.

“Success or failure is not measured by a moment in time,” he said, adding that Sanford’s was “a campaign well run. ... We wish him the best.”

He had hoped Republican voters would prefer a fresh face, calling his campaign, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and he thanked his staff and volunteers for logging more than 50,000 phone calls and then some. He led the crowd in a round of “God Bless America.”

Voters who will turn 18 years old by May 7 may vote on that day, if they register with their county election office by April 7.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.