On a bright and breezy afternoon in mid-August, Anthony Weiner appeared on an oceanside promenade in Rockaway Beach, surrounded by a band of journalists. He spoke about his plans to storm-proof the Queens shoreline, then led the pack on a walk through a concessions pavilion, where he ordered a lobster roll and sat at a table, alone.
Weiner, in dark slacks and shirtsleeves, bantered with photographers while he chewed. Finally, a neighborhood woman approached.
"Sit, for God’s sake,” he urged her as the cameras clicked. “I need some actual human beings to talk to."
Weiner, the grimly persistent Democratic mayoral candidate, is struggling to connect with voters as he presses on with a campaign that has been downgraded from front-runner to long shot. The national and foreign media, once obsessed with his every move, seem to be losing interest. His rivals largely ignore him. His critics have accepted that he isn’t going to quit. Even the jokes about him feel stale.
With the worst of his sexting scandal presumably behind him, and the Democratic primary two weeks away, Weiner now faces perhaps his toughest test yet: how to stay relevant now that the spotlight has shifted away and his competitors surge ahead of him.
That effort is apparent as Weiner crisscrosses the city on public campaign events, making his pitch to voters, addressing mayoral forums, marching in parades and touting his past work as a congressman and city councilman — even as he paints himself as independent.
"I’m running a campaign that’s different from my opponents' in one very important way — I am not rounding up interest groups, political clubs, famous people and every press conference announcing another famous person who has endorsed me," Weiner, 48, told a group of senior citizens on the Upper West Side recently. “I’m not making a list of people to whom I owe my campaign. I’m doing it this way."
Left unsaid was that Weiner used to be one of those insider politicians.
On the stump, Weiner refuses to dwell on the many obstacles to winning. He no longer offers unsolicited apologies about the scandal, but doesn’t dodge questions about it, either.
Instead, he argues that the city has bigger problems than his online relationships with women who weren’t his wife.
"I waged this campaign on a bet that people would care less about my personal background than they would about their future, moving the city forward," he says.
That’s a big bet, with Weiner risking whatever remains of his political credibility on what could be his last citywide run. He has long aspired for the mayoralty, narrowly losing the 2005 Democratic runoff to Fernando Ferrer and staying out of the 2009 race when it became clear that billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg would seek a third term. Weiner has millions of dollars left over from that campaign cycle, a big reason why he was able to enter this year’s race. The latest NBC New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll has him in apparent fourth place, with 12 percent of registered Democrats supporting him.
Since the high drama that marked his early weeks on the trail, Weiner has tried to reach something close to a normal campaign rhythm. His days are spent on a seemingly endless series of senior center visits and far-flung press conferences reviewing his legislative record, interspersed with flesh-pressing with voters at subway stops and gathering spots.
He has yet to include his wife, Huma Abedin, on the trail since his admission that his online relationships continued as recently as last summer; he says that the coverage would draw attention from his policy ideas.
On the stump, Weiner takes gratification where he can: when a bystander shouts his name, or shakes his hand, or tells him, "God bless you" or asks a policy question. He calls such interactions his "nourishment."
But there have been many uncomfortable episodes, when people aren’t exactly sure what to make of him, and he doesn’t seem to know how to draw them in.
"Do you have any questions for me?" Weiner asked a 12-year-old boy standing alongside the journalists watching him eat the lobster roll in Rockaway Beach.
"Do you have any laws you want passed?" Weiner continued.
He went on: "Have you ever seen this, where someone sits and eats and people take unlimited pictures?"
More awkward minutes passed. A woman, Randi Savron, 52, stepped through the scrum. She said she was a sixth-grade teacher and wanted to talk about education. Weiner, the son of a schoolteacher, looked delighted. He locked eyes with Savron while they talked at length about standardized tests and teacher evaluations.
When they finished, he thanked her, and jumped into his black SUV, leaving Savron impressed.
"I feel he’s more genuine than the others," she said.
For all the talk of his being a joke and a distraction, Weiner is a remarkably self-aware candidate — perhaps because he’s already been through the worst of the post-scandal scrutiny. In a roomful of potential voters, he can be wonky, self-deprecating, corny, comical. He passes out cookies, makes fun of his skinniness, and sprinkles his speech with Spanish or Yiddish. At the Dominican Day parade, he jogged Sixth Avenue in slim-fitting red pants while waving a flag.
For pressure release, Weiner often turns to the journalists who follow him around. He banters with the local press and lampoons foreign reporters. He can be harsh.
Cornered by a British television reporter during an early-August evening of door-knocking, Weiner mocked her accent and said he felt like he was in a Monty Python film. "It’s hard to take you seriously," he said.
Then he realized that another reporter there was from the German magazine Der Spiegel. "Who has doors in Germany?" Weiner quipped. "It’s just thatch and huts, right? You have plumbing and stuff like that?"
A few weeks later, when the national and foreign press had stopped showing up, a local reporter asked at an East Harlem public housing complex event if he was worried about the shrinking coverage. Weiner said he was amused at such meta questions.
"You’ve got to decide," Weiner said. "I imagine you cover things the same way, whether there’s 10 of your colleagues there, or none of them there."
Another reporter mentioned the steep climb needed to make the primary runoff. Weiner said he wasn’t worried.
"At about this time in 2005 I was at 11 percent and getting the same exact questions and I made the runoff," he said. "So, we’ll see."
As Weiner got ready to leave, Pearl Barkley, a 58-year-old resident of Jefferson Houses, approached with some questions about NYCHA, the city agency that manages public housing. For a couple minutes they talked about the need for more transparency and accountability.
Barkley said afterward that she was considering voting for Weiner. She had friends who lived in his old congressional district, and they said he seemed like a hard worker, a people person. That meant more to her than the sexting stuff, she said, although she understood why people were troubled by it.
"He must be serious about this," Barkley said. "Because, otherwise, why would he bother?"
With reporting by Andrew Rafferty of NBC News