The end of Anthony Weiner’s comeback campaign looks a lot like the beginning
On Sunday morning, "Meet the Press" took a brief break from the situation in Syria for an exclusive interview with the candidate currently running in fourth place in New York's Democratic primary for mayor.
"Do you still think you have a realistic chance of winning?" Savannah Guthrie asked Anthony Weiner, as the two sat on adjacent park benches.
It was Weiner's first big national TV interview of the campaign, and it had a recognizable theme.
David Gregory introduced the segment by noting that Weiner "lied not once, but twice, about his inappropriate behavior," and Guthrie said she wanted to "drill down" on the specifics of the sexual conversations that occurred after his resignation from Congress.
With just two days until voters go to the polls, and his campaign stuck in single digits, Weiner's attempt to overwhelm and outlast interest in his scandals has not been a success.
Weiner told Guthrie, as he often does, that he was "waging this campaign on a bet" that voters would care more about his policy ideas than his own personal failings.
Weiner was also betting that by re-entering public life, and enduring all the wiener-joke headlines and invasive inquiries about his personal life, he could restore himself as a credible candidate and political advocate in the public mind, even if he wasn't the next mayor.
A strong showing in the face of the scandal might have set him up for some future race, perhaps a primary challenge if the new mayor sputtered in their first term, or something further down the line. At the very least, it was an opportunity to exhaust interest in the scandal that ended his congressional career, and to put it behind him once and for all.
For a while, it looked as if he might pull it off. His effective campaign announcement, in the form of what was supposed to have been a tell-all profile in the Times magazine, went pretty much flawlessly. He had money to spend, a tidy middle-class message, campaigning skills that were unmatched by any of his mayoral rivals and, almost instantly, enough support in the polls to position him for a spot in a run-off.
It's easy to forget now how formidable Weiner looked just then, helped by the seeming bewilderment of his overshadowed opponents, who in some cases found after months of trying to distinguish themselves at countless candidate forums, the only way they could get any press attention for themselves anymore was to give interviews about ... Anthony Weiner.
But the revelation in late July that Weiner had continued his odd online behavior after his apologetic resignation from Congress, and had done so even as he sat for a gauzy family portrait in People magazine last summer, put an end to all that. Weiner's poll numbers cratered, facilitating the rise of the other outer-borough white guy among the major contenders, Bill de Blasio.
And since then, the scandal—which Weiner got into the race to move past, out of a determination not to let it define him—has proven unshakable.
Weiner tried to deflate the story with a round of local television interviews, but this time, the answers only led to more questions. Two months later, Weiner is still trying to find the formula to put it to rest.
When he was introduced by Brian Lehrer before a radio interview on August 30, the host cautioned his callers that he wanted to cover other topics too.
"If you all call on the scandal, many of you will get dumped by our screeners," Lehrer said.
Later, he asked Weiner if he "was trying to mislead people last summer in People magazine." Weiner said he wasn't, and that it was part of a "continuum of challenges" he faced.
On Sunday, Guthrie asked the People questions all over again.
Weiner has occasionally tried to turn the questioning into an indictment of his rivals, particularly Quinn, the City Council speaker and erstwhile Democratic front-runner, by saying she's the one who owes New Yorkers an apology, for helping to extend term limits.
But for the most part, Weiner has reacted to his sinking poll numbers by projecting a relentless optimism, and defiance.
He has rolled out a slew of positive campaign ads, including a new one with his mother.
And, in a final televised debate last week, he acted as a kind of referee and peacemaker, defending the new front-runner, Bill de Blasio, from some attacks from other rivals, saying that "accusing him of being a defender of slumlords is pretty ridiculous.” Weiner also piped up to defend John Liu against the Campaign Finance Board's decision to deny Liu matching funds, and given the chance to ask any other candidate a question, he threw a softball to Bill Thompson about his plans to combat childhood hunger.
Weiner has continued a frenetic campaign schedule, filled with stops at senior centers and press conferences on his policy "ideas." But the beat reporters, bored with the same old questions, have mostly decamped to cover more relevant campaigns.
His campaign events still attract attention sometimes, but it's mostly the kind of attention people pay to car crashes and wardrobe malfunctions.
Last week, a cheery stop at a bakery in Borough Park ended in a confrontation, when a customer muttered about Weiner's "disgraceful" actions and his marriage to "an Arab," and Weiner engaged him in a close-range shouting match.
("[I]f by melt down you mean stood up to a heckler," Weiner replied to one reporter on Twitter. "Yep. Did that. That's what Mayors have to do sometimes.")
Weiner has tried to frame his endurance and impressive imperviousness to embarrassment as a sign of the mettle needed to run the city.
But unless he dramatically outperforms the polls on Tuesday, Weiner will end the campaign worse off than when he started.
When he entered the race, the polls seemed at least to show that the public's disapproval of his actions was matched by significant support for his efforts to overcome them by running for office—44 percent held a favorable opinion of him, against 44 percent unfavorable.
That's all over now. A New York Times-Siena poll last month found that just 24 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Weiner, compared to 66 percent who said they viewed him unfavorably.
In a Quinnipiac poll released last week, 44 percent of voters said they wouldn't vote for Weiner "under any circumstances," up from 28 percent in late July.
Worse yet, the fallout during his campaign has widened to include his wife, Huma Abedin, the longtime Hillary Clinton aide whose effort to salvage the campaign with an emotional public plea was ineffective and possibly harmful to her formerly pristine public image.
Weiner's actions actually prompted some Clinton aides to air their grievances about him in a brutal New York Times story, and later shot back when Weiner joked about knowing his wife's role in Clinton's future presidential campaign.
“We have absolutely no clue what he was talking about,” spokesman Nick Merrill told Politico. “Maybe his campaign does. Doubt it though.”
Abedin, who had previously made a few tentative public appearances with Weiner, hasn't been seen since she stood beside him at that post-scandal press conference in July. And Weiner, who used to insist she would be back on the trail soon, is now conspicuously noncommittal.
"Do you think Huma will come out on the campaign trail between now and election day? Will she be by your side on election night?" asked Guthrie on "Meet the Press."
"I don't know," Weiner said. "I'm walking a fine line. You have, as a reporter, you have an appetite for the Huma side of the story. I want to talk about issues important to the middle class and the issues that citizens care about."
Weiner said she had paid an "unfair" price.
"I don't think she did anything wrong," he said. "I mean, her crime is standing at my side and helping me get through it. That's her crime."
Weiner said he was still convinced he'd win on Tuesday.
"Before we do post-mortems on what happens if I lose, let's have have the campaign and see if I win, and then we'll move forward from there," he said. "And after I serve two terms, perhaps we can have that conversation."
At the end of the segment, David Gregory announced that Weiner would be taking more questions on the "Today" show on Monday morning.