By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C., March 28 (Reuters) - A former U.S. Marine seeking a congressional seat said he would rather talk about his strengths than bash his opponent, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who gained fame when he claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail to hide an affair.
Curtis Bostic emerged from a crowded field of 16 Republicans in the race for the vacant 1st congressional district seat to face Sanford, who was the top vote-getter at 37 percent in the March 19 primary.
The winner of Tuesday's run-off will challenge Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of TV comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert, in the coastal district's special election on May 7.
Political analysts said Bostic's chances of clinching the Republican nomination on Tuesday are a long shot thanks to Sanford's name recognition and residual base of support.
"It's like they're running a 100-yard dash and Sanford's already at the halfway point," said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
The two Republican candidates are set to meet for a debate Thursday night in Charleston.
Bostic has raised $242,000 to Sanford's $412,000, campaign finance records show. A poll released this week by Public Policy Polling showed Sanford leading the race 53 percent to 40 percent.
"We're the underdog in this thing," Bostic, 49, said in an interview with Reuters.
The married father of five is a former member of the Charleston County Council, where he served alongside Tim Scott, a fellow Republican, who vacated his congressional seat in December after being appointed to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Scott replaced Republican Senator Jim DeMint after he resigned to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Bostic said Scott was supportive of his decision to run for the seat in Scott's old district, which encompasses the city of Charleston and parts of four nearby rural counties and stretches south along the coast to include wealthy Hilton Head Island.
Scott, however, has not endorsed a candidate in the race. "We're staying out of the fray for now," said the senator's spokesman, Sean Smith.
Bostic was endorsed this week by former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and the two men campaigned together in the district on Wednesday.
A former U.S. Marine who served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, Bostic has been an attorney for 18 years and also runs two Christian charities.
One charity offers a free recreational program for nonprofit groups at his 35-acre farm near Charleston, and the other operates orphanages in Burma and a safe house for women and children in Liberia, he said.
He described himself as "fiercely fiscally conservative." His campaign website is titled stopspending.com.
"Right now, we are facing collapse in an economic setting," Bostic said. "I believe we need to get our government back into the bounds of the Constitution."
Sanford, who served as the 1st district's congressman for three terms from 1995 to 2001, is seeking his old seat after a personal scandal stained his governorship.
He gained national notoriety in 2009 for trying to hide an affair by telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was visiting his mistress in Argentina. His wife at the time divorced him after the affair became public, and he is now engaged to the Argentine woman, journalist Maria Belen Chapur.
Voters so far have not punished Sanford, 52, for the scandal, political analysts said.
"The Charleston area and the coastal areas have always been more forgiving than any other parts of the state," said Republican political strategist J. Warren Tompkins, who said he was not involved in either campaign.
Bostic shied away from criticizing Sanford in an interview. He said hoped his credentials would attract support from small businesses and "the wonderful, ordinary people of this district.
"People have framed an opinion already, I believe, as to Mark's issues," he said. "Character matters in leadership, but...all of us, including myself, are people that have made mistakes in our life."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Gevirtz)
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