Key dates

March 19: Republican and Democratic primaries

April 2: Primary runoff (if necessary)

May 7: Special election

Fifteen of 16 GOP 1st Congressional District candidates faced off in three separate groups Thursday night, each hoping to make a case that will land them among the top two vote-getters in 11 days.

Sponsored by the Republican Liberty Caucus, the forum drew about 100 onlookers inside North Charleston City Council’s chambers.

The candidates mostly agreed on the need to shrink federal government and curb its regulations, protect gun rights and support the federal government’s involvement in deepening the port of Charleston.

With only a minute to answer, there were few fireworks but some clear differences on policy issues.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston said he never would have voted for the sequester legislation, a concept now causing across-the-board cuts in the federal government.

“You’ve got to make lots and lots of cuts, but you can’t take the economy down in the process,” he said.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford called the sequester “a blunt tool” and “not one I would have chosen,” but added he would have supported it. “It represents a tiny step toward fiscal restraint that has been long needed in Washington.”

State Rep. Andy Patrick of Hilton Head Island said he was “a big fan” of the e-Verify system to screen job applicants, but former Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash said he didn’t like it because it forces business to enforce immigration — something that should be the federal government’s job.

Charleston County School Board member Elizabeth Moffly did not tackle the e-Verify question directly but said this about illegal immigrants: “I’m not for amnesty, but I am for ensuring those who are here are paying their fair share as the rest of us do.”

Engineer Ric Bryant was among a few candidates expressing support for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, saying, “It’s proven that it’s not working. We’re spending more and more, and we’re getting less results.”

Asked if he would urge state leaders to match federal dollars for building roads and rail lines, Charleston teacher and businessman Teddy Turner said, “We need to make sure when we’re doing infrastructure ... we’ve got to make sure we don’t just do things willy-nilly.”

State Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau said what happens in South Carolina is a state responsibility. “Let’s face it. We’re at a tipping point in this nation. The federal government is overextended, and we’re continuing to be overextended.”

Daniel Island lawyer Shawn Pinkston voiced support for a federal safety net but was the sole candidate to make the argument that benefits should go only to those who need it.

He noted his father relies on his Social Security benefits, while his mother and stepfather do not.

Asked if he would support closing the loophole that allows some gun sales at gun shows, state Rep. Peter McCoy of James Island said, “I’m for protecting our Second Amendment rights at all costs.”

Sullivan’s Island businessman Keith Blandford went further: “The Second Amendment is in place to protect us against a despotic government. ... For me, personally, if they want to take away my weapons, they’re going to have to kill me for them.”

Jonathan Hoffman, a Charleston businessman and former White House director of border security, said he supported the Second Amendment but favored background checks, because without them, additional reporting of those with mental health problems wouldn’t work.

Engineer Jeff King praised U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour Wednesday night filibuster on drone strikes.

“I can’t remember in my entire lifetime being inspired by the efforts of a politician who was standing up there. We’ve been lulled into thinking we can’t make a change. We can’t make a difference.”

Former state Sen. John Kuhn also praised Rand’s move, saying it was “good gridlock when we can stand up, stop the system and say the rights of American people must be preserved. That’s awesome.”

Systems engineer Tim Larkin also took some time to praise S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis, one of the forum’s moderators who was censured by an investment panel earlier this week. “Thank for what you did, wearing your censure as a badge of honor. Thank you.”

Only former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic did not appear.

The big GOP debate was supposed to be held on March 14, but the state Republican Party announced this week that it would not hold a debate on that date but on March 28 instead.

The primary is March 19, and the top two vote-getters are expected to face off in an April 2 runoff.

The two Democratic 1st District candidates, Clemson Restoration Institute development director Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Wadmalaw Island businessman Ben Frasier, also were supposed to have their own forum Thursday night, but neither was able to attend.

Charleston area Democrats who showed up for the event were told that Frasier was sick and unable, while Busch did not attend because her mother was ill.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.