Poll: Spitzer leads in comptroller race

Former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer speaks

Former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer speaks to the media in Union Square as he gathers signatures to be a candidate for comptroller in Manhattan. (July 08, 2013) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Eliot Spitzer jumped to a 9-percentage point lead in the Democratic primary race for New York City comptroller in his first two days as a candidate, according to a new poll released Wednesday night.

Five years after the prostitution scandal that forced him to resign as governor, two-thirds of Democratic voters surveyed were willing to give him a second chance, The Wall Street Journal-NBC 4 New York-Marist poll found. He led Scott Stringer, the less-known Manhattan borough president, by 42 percent to 33 percent, with 24 percent undecided. The margin of error was 4.2 percentage points for the 546 registered Democrats in the survey, taken Monday and Tuesday.

Amid the drama of Spitzer's sudden re-entry into politics, suspense remained over whether he could gather enough valid petition signatures by midnight tonight to get on the Sept. 10 primary ballot. A petitioning party Wednesday night at a midtown Manhattan eatery sought to boost the race-the-clock effort.

Of the poll numbers, Spitzer told reporters there, "I'm gratified, needless to say, that I'm ahead. It's very comforting, but it reflects that I have a lot of work I'm going to do." Stringer campaign manager Sascha Owen said, "We're confident that as more voters get to know Scott he will be the obvious choice for comptroller."

Spitzer must submit 3,750 valid signatures to the city Board of Elections to qualify for a spot on the ballot opposite Stringer. Asked Wednesday night how many signatures he had so far, Spitzer said: "I feel like a CEO who's asked to predict quarterly earnings. I don't want to over-promise. I don't want to under-promise."

Stringer's campaign said it had 100,000 signatures.

Signatures can be challenged and disqualified on a variety of grounds, so candidates typically collect many more than the minimum. A city Board of Elections annual report showed that in 2012, of 3,242 designating candidate petitions received across the city, 607 were invalidated by the board.

Spitzer's task this week "is a daunting, but not impossible, process," said election lawyer Lawrence A. Mandelker, who worked on Spitzer's petitioning team during his 1994 run for attorney general but is not involved in his current campaign.

Mandelker said one typical error is information filled out incompletely by the "subscribing witness" at the bottom of each sheet -- which renders all signatures on the sheet invalid.

General objections, which can be made by any city resident, must be filed by Monday and supporting line-by-line objections are due one week later.

Spitzer, who is financing his campaign from his family real estate fortune, denied reports that he was paying petition canvassers $800 a day, and said he was paying hourly rates.

"It varies," he said.

In an interview earlier Wednesday on CNBC, Spitzer acknowledged he has to win back voters' trust because of the prostitution scandal. "Trust is the issue," he said.

The poll found 46 percent of Democrats had a positive view of Spitzer, 35 percent an unfavorable view and 19 percent were unsure. As for Stringer, 43 percent were unsure, while 40 percent viewed him favorably and 17 percent unfavorably.

Spitzer has hired Manhattan-based consultants BrownMillerGroup, which worked on Bill Thompson's 2009 mayoral campaign, to aid in the petitioning process, firm partner Peter Brown confirmed.

He has hired ad expert Jimmy Siegel, who made ads for Spitzer during his successful 2006 gubernatorial run.

Siegel on Wednesday said he and Spitzer had not yet decided when the TV ads would run or how many would hit the airwaves, but expressed confidence in a victory come Sept. 10, the Democratic primary.

"He wouldn't have run if he didn't think he could win," Siegel said.

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