CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Tuesday's vote in South Carolina's First Congressional District may well be a referendum on former Gov. Mark Sanford and the politics of forgiveness.
But it is also being framed as a barometer of the Republican Party's relationship to women, the influence of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and how much voters believe that a political outsider is needed to help end Congressional gridlock.
In most other years, the race for a Congressional seat in a small coastal district in South Carolina would draw barely a drop of national attention. But there is not much else going on at the polls this spring, and the race leading to the vote has been soaked in personal drama that many have found more engaging than, if not similar to, reality television.
Local polls indicate that the race is nearly even. If Mr. Sanford beats Elizabeth Colbert Busch, his Democratic opponent, a district that has long been a Republican stronghold will remain so, and the man who in 2009 committed what appeared to be professional suicide by covering up a trip to Argentina to see his lover with a story about hiking the Appalachian Trail will have new political life.
If Mrs. Colbert Busch, the older sister of the television comedian Stephen Colbert, wins, it would help the Democrats in their quest to get back 17 seats that the party needs to control Congress. Political analysts say it also might knock Mr. Sanford out of politics for good.
"What Sanford's going to do if he loses is a big question," said Scott Buchanan, a professor and executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics.
The seat opened up in December when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Congressman Tim Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party, to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. Mr. DeMint had stepped down to run the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Sanford held the seat from 1995 to 2001, riding a wave of Republican power led by Newt Gingrich and articulated by the party's Contract with America.
After easily beating a Republican primary field crowded with 16 candidates earlier this spring, Mr. Sanford seemed a good bet to take the race from Mrs. Colbert Busch.
But in April, leaked documents from his divorce revealed that his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, claimed that he had been in her house watching the Super Bowl with one of his sons in violation of their divorce agreement. (The two will head back to court on Thursday to resolve the issue.)
From that point, it appeared that Mrs. Colbert Busch stood a real chance. The National Republican Congressional Committee pulled its support of Mr. Sanford while national Democratic organizations poured money into her campaign.
She appeared to spike in popularity, but now at least two local polls have deemed the race too close to predict. Although only a quarter or less of the district's 453,632 voters are expected to go to the polls, both sides are focused on turning out as many supporters as possible.
As it did in the primary, the United States Justice Department said it would be on the ground to monitor the election to ensure compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The state recently passed a new voter identification law, which requires voters to produce driver's licenses, passports or other forms of state-approved voter photo IDs.
On Sunday, Mrs. Colbert Busch received a key endorsement from The Post and Courier of Charleston, the largest newspaper in the area, and some Republican women have stepped firmly into her camp. Several prominent women in Congress have voiced support, as has Bowzer from the rock band Sha Na Na.
Mr. Sanford has received support from several prominent Republicans, including Governor Haley, although some of it has been tepid. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican, has been more vocal, portraying the race in a series of statements and Twitter message as a statement against President Obama.
Mr. Sanford received, but declined, an endorsement and the offer of financial support from Larry Flynt, the noted pornography advocate who called Mr. Sanford "America's great sex pioneer."
Certainly, the race has drawn an outsized amount of media attention. Reporters have been dispatched from The Guardian, a British daily, as well the national broadcast networks and political bloggers. Visiting journalists have been embraced by the Sanford camp. On Saturday, a group followed him around as he went in search of, as he put it, "women who hate me" to help answer reporters' questions about whether his personal life will torpedo his political one.
His point, of course, was that the election is not about whether women -- especially Republican women -- are abandoning him or the party as a whole.
He and the state's Republican Party have turned the election into a referendum on President Obama and his supporters, frequently evoking Mrs. Pelosi's name and citing the national Democratic Party's generous support of Mrs. Colbert Busch as proof of her ties to Washington.
"We are not trying to elect the 'how is your conscience' candidate," said Charm Altman, president of the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women. "We are trying to elect someone who can govern. We don't need any more Pelosi or Obama or Jim Clyburn Democrats in Washington."
For her part, Mrs. Colbert Busch has made the election about one issue only: business.
She has been vague but not supportive of President Obama's budget and health care reforms but specific on adding jobs in South Carolina, leaning heavily on her experience as a longtime maritime executive -- experience that matters in a district that is often more purple than the rest of the deeply conservative state and that relies heavily on its well-trafficked port in Charleston and jobs created by Boeing.
Regardless of the outcome, the winner will have to run again in 2014. Some Republicans strategists say Mrs. Colbert Busch would be an easy target -- especially on a ballot that will include the governor, Senator Graham and Senator Scott, whose appointment to the Senate started the whole battle.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.