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Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and the limits of New York politics

NEW YORK — Carlos Danger looks vulnerable.

The candidate formally known as Anthony M. Weiner is at a subway stop in the Bronx to meet voters but stands alone for several painfully awkward moments, making sweeping motions with his arms and clapping. You can almost hear the churning stomachs of young campaign aides with blue and orange signs that read WEINER for MAYOR.

They begin to push people toward Weiner — Would you like to meet him? Do you want a picture? — who grows more antsy. "Get closer," he implores.

Soon, they do, putting the full spectacle of the man on display, a wiry bundle of energy, charisma and overconfidence, feasting on interactions with the public. "Nourishment," he calls it.

An hour in the Bronx last week explains why Weiner remains in the race to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg despite tanking in the polls amid new revelations of his sex chats with strangers. He needs this, even if most of New York doesn't need him.

The unruly horde of reporters that followed him everywhere a month ago was down to three, one from out of town. "You're a little late for Weiner mania, dude," Weiner wisecracks, unintentionally putting a bow on his collapse.

The following morning in Brooklyn, Eliot Spitzer slides out of an SUV for the same ritual, glad-handing people outside a subway station. "You're back, huh?" a man tells the former governor now running for city comptroller. "I hope so," Spitzer replies quietly.

New York has seen it all but this: two sex-scandal-scarred ex-pols seeking comebacks at the same time. A wild, weird summer has enthralled, embarrassed and exhausted the city that never sleeps.

Tabloid headline writers have added to a pantheon of Gotham classics. "Here We Ho Again!" the New York Post said of Spitzer, who resigned five years ago after being exposed as a client in a prostitution ring. Even the venerable New Yorker got in on the action with a cover depicting Weiner's legs wrapped around the top of the Empire State Building and him leaning back lewdly to take a cellphone picture.

There are real issues to debate as Bloomberg's 12-year reign comes to an end, not least of which are a growing income disparity and the Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy. But serious-minded New Yorkers have found the sideshow inescapable.

"Carlos Danger? I mean, how much better can it get?" said Melissa Cullens, a 31-year-old designer in Brooklyn, using Weiner's online alias. "And he's someone who wants to be in charge of the biggest city in the country? Amazing."

• • •

Weiner, 48, emerged from a two-year public exile after resigning his seat in Congress in shame and audaciously threw himself into the crowded race for mayor. Improbably he rose to the top, bubbling with ideas, name recognition and a story of redemption through public service.

Then came the tawdry new details — revealing his misbehavior continued even after he left Congress — and widespread calls for him to drop out. Pressure came from Bill and Hillary Clinton, who are tight with Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin. "Senora Danger … What's wrong with you?" the Post headline read.

"Quit isn't the way we roll in New York City," Weiner answered in an ad.

His unfavorability rating has hit 80 percent, a record for the long-running Siena College poll. Weiner's supporters are coalescing behind Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, who shot to the front of the pack and took a pounding from his rivals during a debate Wednesday. (Candidates were asked if they have ever texted while driving. "Yes," Weiner responded, sending the audience into fits of laughter.)

"Whether it's Spitzer or Weiner or Michael Vick, the public will give people another chance," said Baron Osborne, a truck driver from the Bronx. "But with Weiner people are saying, 'No third shot.' "

Weiner — a Democrat, as is Spitzer — has been further hurt by confrontations with critics, reporters and fellow candidates. "Grandpa," he dismissed a rival at an AARP-sponsored forum. His spokeswoman had to apologize after unleashing a profane verbal assault on an intern who wrote about her bad experience.

"You can write a book on how not to campaign by using Anthony Weiner. It's so utterly self-destructive," said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College and expert on city politics.

Spitzer, 54, chose a softer re-introduction with the obscure comptroller position, which handles city contracts and its pension fund.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Spitzer with a 19-point lead ahead of the Sept. 10 primary, propped up by overwhelming support from African-Americans. Weiner's hope of making it to a run-off hinges on black voters as well.

"The Bible says do not judge," said Mary Gaymon, 74, who lives at a public housing project in Queens that Weiner visited Tuesday, plying voters with cookies. "Whatever he did, that's personal."

And while Weiner's support among women has plummeted to single digits, Spitzer's has grown.

"Spitzer is making a more appropriate choice," said Patricia Lavelle, 37, an immigration lawyer in Manhattan. "Although he suffers from narcissism like many politicians, I think it would be beneficial to us to have him in government again."

Spitzer keeps a light public schedule, staying out of the way of reporters' questions about his relationship with his estranged wife. On the morning in Brooklyn, he spent only 15 minutes greeting voters, setting aside his famously brash persona, speaking softly and introducing himself as if people had no idea who he is.

"This is a just stepping stone for him," scoffed Lenny Minski, 55, an attorney.

TV ads in heavy rotation remind the public of Spitzer's past fights against Wall Street as state attorney general, reinforcing an outsider image that once worked for Weiner.

"Spitzer is the middle finger candidate and the black electorate may be more prone to vote for the antiestablishment candidate. It appeals to a Brooklyn guy like me, too," Muzzio said.

Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who was expected to waltz into the job, has accused Spitzer of using his family wealth to buy the race and suggests he is untrustworthy.

The New York Times, New York Post and Daily News have all endorsed Stringer. "Spitzer's goals in office have always been less about serving the people's interest and more about feeding his insatiable ego, his giant ambitions and his basest appetites," the Post wrote.

Spitzer is still in position to win, and the comptroller job, which can audit city agencies, could put him on a collision course with the new mayor.

"I think voters are looking at the totality of my career," he said in an interview. "Voters tend to be supportive of those who've made errors and are willing to fight hard to come back and acknowledge what they've done, right and wrong."

• • •

What keeps Weiner going? Hubris? A deep craving for attention, or a belief he needs to finish a race to show he's serious about a future in public office?

As he stood on the street in the Bronx, the subway clanking above, Weiner saw flickers of hope. Though apprehensive at first, passers-by approached him in a surreal mix of genuine support and a desire to get a photo with someone made infamous by sending photos of his crotch to women.

Weiner didn't care either way, happily mugging and asking for votes.

"I'm going to bring up the dirty part," said Barbara Moses Hall, 64. "They say you cannot be trusted because you like to go online. I don't care where you go. What are you going to offer us, the people that might vote for you?"

Weiner lit up. "You even ask questions, cool!" he said. "Listen, this thing isn't about me. It's about you. It's about your problems."

He rattled off his plans for public housing, a single-payer health care system and investing more in public schools. "I've got more ideas than you've got time," said Weiner, who wore a small microphone under his yellow-striped tie, a documentary filmmaker nearby.

The show never stops.

Contact Alex Leary at leary@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.

Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and the limits of New York politics 08/23/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 25, 2013 1:58am]
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