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In Weiner's final days, more curiosity than serious candidate

By Peter Hamby, CNN Digital National Political Correspondent
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Mon September 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Weiner makes his "closing arguments" in mayoral campaign that he once led
  • In closing days of race, Weiner seems to be living between shamelessness and fortitude
  • His New Yorkitude offers stark contrast to consultant-driven personas of his opponents

New York (CNN) -- Anthony Weiner was running almost an hour late for his final campaign appearance of the weekend, two days before he faces all-but-certain political doom in Tuesday's Democratic primary for New York mayor.

There was a "child care mixup" at home, an aide said. Weiner had to peel off the campaign trail and hustle back to his Park Avenue residence to pick up his 20-month-old son, Jordan. Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, has been absent from his side for weeks.

But a small band of Weiner volunteers waited patiently for their candidate near the entrance to Pier 1 in Manhattan's Riverside Park, distributing campaign fliers to a largely disinterested crowd of families soaking in some late summer sun at the Westside County Fair.

As they lingered, an otherwise normal-looking middle-aged man approached each of the volunteers and angrily thrust a finger in their faces.

One by one, he scolded them with a nonsensical reprimand: "Sexting for mayor!" he yelled. "Sexting for mayor!"

By the time Weiner arrived, the man was gone, and the former congressman avoided yet another public confrontation over the lewd online chats that torpedoed his once-promising mayoral bid.

Anthony Weiner fires back at heckler
Anthony Weiner fires back at heckler
Anthony Weiner on defensive in debate

These scenes have become an almost daily routine for Weiner since he admitted in July that his naughty online behavior had continued well after he resigned from Congress in 2011, when he copped to exchanging racy pictures and lurid messages with women he had met on the Internet.

Weiner today is more of a public curiosity than a serious candidate, despite being the best pure political talent in a Democratic field bereft of charisma and the kind of outsized personalities to which New York voters have become accustomed.

After once leading the mayor's race, he is now in a distant fourth place. If no candidate captures more than 40% of the vote in Tuesday's primary -- and front-runner Bill de Blasio just might -- the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election.

Combative Weiner still says he can win

Weiner will not be one of them, despite what he tells reporters.

"I'm convinced that I'm going be the next mayor of this city," Weiner said Sunday during an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press," an appearance that seemed wildly discordant with his diminished stature in New York, where the press is mostly ignoring him (unless he clashes with a loud-mouthed voter).

Weiner challenges man who rebuked him for being 'married to an Arab'

Scant media coverage but plenty of attention

At appearance after appearance during his final weekend of campaigning, a frantic schedule that featured 13 public events and trio of "tele-town halls," Weiner attracted scant media attention.

There were just two members of the press at a Weiner event Saturday in which he presented his "closing arguments" for a fairer tax system to a group of Spanish-speaking voters from Washington Heights, with the assistance of a translator.

The next day, outside a YMCA in the Upper West Side where Weiner was pitching his affordable housing plan, a local news producer who had been detailed to the candidate said he was often the sole journalist at his events.

After Weiner concluded his news conference, he asked whether any of the three reporters present had any questions about the topics at hand: public housing, rent regulations, mix-used zoning.

There were none, so he took a question about de Blasio.

But wherever he showed up during his admirably hectic final push -- on street corners, at community fairs, even at a cricket field in the far reaches of Queens -- Weiner would invariably draw a crowd of onlookers, most of them polite and nearly all of them reaching for their smartphones to document the moment. He is the human manifestation of click bait.

While Weiner chatted with a voter on the corner of 105th and Amsterdam about expansion plans for NYU and Columbia University, an open-topped New York tour bus pulled up to a nearby stoplight.

A heavyset man on the top deck of the bus spotted the candidate on the sidewalk -- from a 40-yard distance, no less -- and started flailing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs: "Weiner! Weiner! Weiner!"

Weiner paused and waved back. "Welcome to New York! Stay as long as you want! Spend lots of money!"

In the closing days of the race, Weiner seems to be living in a sweet spot between shamelessness and fortitude, soldiering on in the face of mockery and barely any hope of winning. If he cracks double digits on Tuesday, it will be a surprise.

Voters can't quite seem to figure out why he didn't quit the race weeks ago.

Craig Meisner, a Democrat from Riverdale who runs a nonprofit, came upon one of Weiner's "closing argument" events Saturday while walking through Isham Park in upper Manhattan. Like hundreds of New Yorkers before and after him, he looked on curiously, snapped a picture and promptly posted it to Twitter.

"It makes no sense to me at all," Meisner said of Weiner's campaign. "I am assuming he's running so that for his next step, his next office, he can say he's cleansed himself. You go through the process, you get vilified to whatever degree, and then you can run again for something else."

What could have been

Where some see desperation, others wonder what could have been.

"Anthony Weiner is the best political performer in this field and is progressive and tough enough in his policies and rhetoric that he'd be at or near the top of this race were it not for his scandals," said one veteran of New York City politics who, because of friends working in rival campaigns, did not want to be named saying something nice about the man who called himself Carlos Danger.

Weiner's brazenness, energy and full-blown New Yorkitude offer a stark contrast to the cautious and consultant-driven personas of his Democratic opponents.

At a Harlem forum hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton on Saturday, Weiner held forth on the topic of civil rights, referring to members of the African-American audience as "my brothers and sisters."

When Weiner mistakenly referred to Sharpton as "Rev. Jackson," he had the crowd in stitches with his quick recovery: "Thank you! Good night!" Even the front-running de Blasio couldn't match Weiner's effortless wit and ability to read a crowd.

The next morning, Weiner called into Hot 97, the venerable New York hip-hop radio station. Asked to name his favorite rappers, Weiner quickly won over the DJs.

"I'm a big fan of Luda; I like Nas," he answered. "But I'm little more a of dance hall reggae guy than a hip-hop guy." Much laughter ensued.

None of this is to say that Weiner, freed from the burden of expectations, is feeling loose and breezy as his campaign winds down.

Arriving at staged press events where there might only be one reporter waiting for him, Weiner can wear a pained look on his face, his jaw clenched tightly as he prepares to go through the motions of his outlining his policy positions even though they have no hope of making the papers.

"Lucky ducky artichucky," he muttered to himself as he prepared to speak to a single NY1 camera at his YMCA event.

One reporter described his demeanor lately as "sheepish," which is how Weiner looked when he arrived an hour late to Riverside Park holding the hand of his son, Jordan, who was wearing the world's tiniest fedora.

"See the hat? He's bringing sexy back," Weiner said.

As with everywhere he goes, observers hung back as Weiner walked along the Hudson River waterfront, looking on curiously and snapping pictures. Mothers and fathers pushing strollers looked annoyed as Weiner's entourage clogged the walkway. "You've got to be kidding me," one woman exclaimed.

The appearance was billed as a "retail" event, but Weiner shook few hands, instead tending to his child and walking along the Hudson River waterfront for the benefit of the cameras.

The fact that Weiner is now being trailed at all times by filmmaker Josh Kriegman, a former producer for the MTV reality series "MADE," only adds to the sense that his campaign, in its final days, is as much performance art as pursuit of office.

Weiner is asked how he steels himself for this perplexing ritual every morning before he leaves his apartment.

"This is the only campaign I know how to run," he explains, pointing to the dozens of news ideas he has floated during the campaign. "Every single I day I get up and I think, I am going to run the campaign New Yorkers want. This is where I am comfortable. This is what I like doing, and this has always worked for me. So I am not going to stop."

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