— With less than three weeks before their crowded primary, 10 of the 16 Republicans seeking the 1st Congressional District seat tried to woo more than 100 Republicans here Tuesday night.

March 19: Republican and Democratic primaries

April 2: Primary runoff (if needed)

May 7: Special election

Key dates

The forum, held by the Conservative Republican Men’s Group, got around to only two questions during the two-hour event, and candidates used a host of tactics to try to distinguish themselves from the field.

The first question asked candidates how many federal employees should be trimmed, and former Gov. Mark Sanford said he favors a bill that would cut the number of federal employees by about 10 percent, largely through attrition. But Sanford said even more cuts than that will be needed.

Former Dorchester Sheriff Ray Nash said he also favored reducing employees through attrition, then joked, “I can think of two federal employees I’d like to fire immediately,” a reference to the president and vice president.

Jonathan Hoffman, a candidate who worked in George W. Bush’s White House, said all agencies could get by with fewer employees, but correcting the financial problems will require adjustments to Social Security and Medicare.

“If you don’t talk about entitlements, this is like Enron going from two-ply to one-ply toilet paper in the executive bathrooms,” he said.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse said while candidates have talked about balancing the federal budget, he has played a leadership role balancing yet another state budget. “It’s simple. It’s math,” he said. “If we don’t cut the federal budget, we’re going to cease to exist as a nation.”

Former state Sen. John Kuhn got a smattering of applause when he talked tough on immigration reform and said those who are here illegally and who give birth should not see their child automatically become a U.S. citizen. “That has got to change,” he said. “It is not right.”

Kuhn also noted his wife had to go to the hospital earlier in the day but he still put on his suit and showed up. “I want to ask, ‘Where’s Curtis Bostic?’ ”

Bostic, a former Charleston County Councilman, was absent, but his representative was allowed to speak. Kuhn pushed for an answer to Bostic’s whereabouts, but the moderator responded, “I think the best answer is the voters in this room see the empty seats.”

Two other prominent candidates, state Sen. Larry Grooms and Charleston businessman Teddy Turner, also were absent. Grooms was in Columbia receiving a Water Conservation District honor and could not attend, said Berkeley county Councilman Tim Callanan, who is guiding Grooms’ campaign.

Candidate Shawn Pinkston said the looming sequestration is an example of what’s wrong in Washington. “We have members of Congress blaming the other side instead of sitting down and finding common sense solutions to our problems,” he said.

Candidate Jeff King often tried to use humor to try to break through, noting that his campaign budget allowed him to buy only eight large signs, seven of which blew down in the past few days.

State Rep. Peter McCoy said the GOP winner will face a serious challenge May 7, adding that Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch raised $150,000 last weekend, when her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert, held a local fundraiser for her.

“I’ve proven I can beat Democrats,” McCoy said. “I’m a Democrat’s worst nightmare. There are a lot of people in this (GOP March 19 primary) race that have huge targets on their backs.”

Ric Bryant got applause when he said he would “tell lobbyists where they can go,” and he also said he would work with Democrats “if they’re interested in coming up with good bipartisan solutions. It doesn’t pay for us to fight.”

Candidate Elizabeth Moffly, who is a Charleston County School Board member, also seemed to score points when she answered the immigration question simply by saying she agreed with all nine previous responses. “I won’t reiterate it, just to save you that,” she said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.