Former Gov. Mark Sanford said he’s never run a campaign as a frontrunner, but he’s currently getting attacked like one.

As the Republicans 1st Congressional District hopeful began airing new ads and going on national news shows, one campaign is hitting back.

State Rep. Andy Patrick of Hilton Head Island, who is among the 15 GOP hopefuls battling with Sanford in the March 19 primary, has taken the lead, sending out a direct mail piece blasting Sanford.

Meanwhile, two Congressmen who served as state lawmakers during Sanford’s tenure announced they were backing state Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau. Both Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney today described their endorsement as more pro Grooms than anti Sanford.

Patrick’s mail-out focuses on Sanford’s infamous 2009 decision to leave the state to travel to see his mistress in Argentina — an incident that led to increased scrutiny on his travel and a record $74,000 ethics fine.

Patrick campaign manager Matthew Beynon has dubbed Sanford’s week “an apology tour,” adding, “He may want to only have his side told, but there is another side that the voters need to be reminded of. The side that tells the story of a Governor that abandoned them, that misused their trust, and was derelict in upholding his oath to the people.”

Sanford is seen as a favorite to be among the top two vote getters on March 19, though most also feel certain the race won’t be settled until an April 2 GOP runoff takes place.

Sanford’s spokesman Joel Sawyer said today, “Gov. Sanford is going to keep this campaign focused on issues. It would be great if other campaigns and their candidates did the same.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.