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2013 Elections marked by candidates seeking redemption; will voters forgive?

Weiner.jpg

After scandal, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer make pitch to win back public trust. (Reuters)

The year of the cad?

The 2013 election cycle is becoming notorious for having three candidates trying to make political comebacks, asking voters for a second chance following a scandal.

While politicians and their boundless self-confidence is nothing new, their recent attempts to return to public office -- and Americans’ apparent willingness to forgive -- appear unprecedented.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, argues all three politicians committed “sins of the flesh,” which leave open the possibility of redemption.

“But this doesn’t apply to all offenses,” he warned. “Nobody is going to come back from murder or grand larceny.”

South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford was elected to Congress in a May 2013 special election -- four years after acknowledging an extra-marital affair while governor.

And New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress in 2011 after tweeting seminude pictures of himself, has joined the New York City gubernatorial race, leading a large field by 4 percentage points, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC NY/Marist College poll.

Like Sanford and Weiner, Democrat Elliott Spitzer, who was force from office in 2008 after revelations he was a frequent customer of a high-end call-girl service, got off to a rocky start.

“You betrayed your constituents, your family and your wife,” a man yelled Monday, the first day of Spitzer’s campaign. “You betrayed everybody.”

Sabato, now writing a book about President Kennedy, suggests the late president would have been run out of public office had Americans of that era learned of his purported, extra-marital affairs and that they are now perhaps more forgiving.

Still, political comebacks -- after what Sabato also calls “personal sins” -- are not unprecedented.

Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter survived a 2007 prostitution scandal.

His phone number was found in a publish list kept by a women known as the D.C. Madam. Within days, Vitter claimed responsibility and asked forgiveness, then went on to win re-election in 2010.

While Sanford and Weiner seemed to have at the very least acted selfishly, Spitzer faces more serious concerns, particularly wanting to become comptroller after his apparent attempt to hide paying $4,300 to the call-girl service.

“He laundered money, hello,” Republican strategist Dee Dee Benkie told Fox News on Tuesday. But Weiner’s mistake doesn’t show he cannot get snow removed from city streets and sidewalks on time, she argued.

Spitzer cleared his first major hurdle Thursday, four days after announcing his bid, by gathering 27,000 signatures to get on the Sept. 13 primary ballot with Weiner.

While both insist they're not following Sanford’s playbook, they have taken a similar strategy: asking voters for forgiveness, then pivoting to what they have accomplished in elected office and outlining what more they could do, if elected again.

"New Yorkers, as good souls, have a sense of forgiveness,” Spitzer said. “But whether or not they forgive me is a whole separate issue."

The former “sheriff of Wall Street” promises to put similar muscle behind the comptroller’s office, which invests the city's $139 billion in pension funds, analyzes the budget and audits agencies and programs.

But political analysts say Spitzer will need to walk a fine line between maintaining the "steamroller" persona that propelled him into the governor's office and signal to voters he knows he made a mistake.

"He's got to be a different model of Spitzer," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist. "And this model has got to be as competent and less arrogant.”

Spitzer's arrival shakes up what had looked to be a predictable comptroller's race. Democratic Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a former state assemblyman, had raised more than $3.5 million while his lesser-known opponents had yet to report any fundraising or spending.

"Bring it on,” Stringer said. “We're ready for this."

A poll released Wednesday by NBC 4/Wall Street Journal/Marist shows Spitzer leading Stringer 42 percent to 33 percent among registered Democrats.

And another contender, Kristin Davis, may make it difficult for Spitzer to avoid questions about his past. She was convicted of promoting prostitution and claims to have provided call girls to Spitzer, which hasn't been proven.