Five years after a prostitution scandal forced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer from office, many Democrats appear willing to give him a shot at political redemption, according to a new poll that shows him with a strong lead in the city comptroller race.
Spitzer only announced his candidacy Sunday, and it isn't yet clear whether he will gather enough signatures by a Thursday deadline to make the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot. But 42 percent of registered Democrats already say they support Spitzer, compared to 33 percent for his potential rival, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, the NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll shows.
Spitzer resigned as governor in 2008 after he was caught on a wiretap arranging to meet a prostitute. In the new poll, taken Monday and Tuesday, 67 percent of Democrats said he deserved a second chance, and 44 percent said he was a changed man. Nearly two-thirds said his scandal mattered little to the race, or not at all.
He also enjoys a healthy favorability rating, with 46 percent of Democrats saying they had a positive opinion of him, compared to 40 percent saying the same of Stringer.
The poll of 536 registered Democrats has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Spitzer has until Thursday to gather the 3,750 signatures needed for a spot on the ballot.
Before he was governor, Spitzer was a hard-charging state attorney general whose prosecution of corporate malfeasance earned him the nickname "sheriff of Wall Street." He has since indicated that the city comptroller's job could be used in a similar manner. Voters appear to agree: 57 percent of the poll's Democratic respondents said they thought he'd do a good job as comptroller.
Those signs -- and the surging mayoral candidacy of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned in a 2011 sexting scandal -- seem to reflect a willingness among New Yorkers to overlook a politician's prior transgressions.
"It was wrong, but he admitted his guilt, so give him a second chance," said John Lin, 53, a Brooklyn Democrat and poll respondent who said he'd vote for Spitzer.
"I like him because he's a fighter," Lin added.
Lin said he believed that most politicians have misdeeds in their past, and Spitzer ought to be viewed in that context. According to the poll, Lin is in the majority: 72 percent of Democrats said they believe politicians had something to hide.
The sense that indiscretions are common among politicians may, in fact, help both Spitzer and Weiner, according to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
"This is an era when people are very questioning of the ethical standards of politicians, and think this is very widespread, which may in a sense lessen the damage to people like Spitzer, and to Weiner as well," said Miringoff.
At the same time, Spitzer "still has got more convincing to do," Miringoff added.
Voters were asked which scandal -- Spitzer's or Weiner's -- was worse, and the responses were nearly evenly split. Thirty-one percent said Weiner sending lewd pictures over Twitter was more egregious, and 29 percent chose Spitzer's involvement in prostitution. Nineteen percent said the two scandals were equally reprehensible, while 13 percent said neither was offensive.
Stringer, who until this week seemed to have a lock on his party's nomination, has his own work to do. Forty-three percent of Democrats polled said that they'd never heard of him or were unsure what they thought of him.
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."
But there are other indications that Stringer has a chance to overcome the nine-point gap.
First, his negative rating is about half of Spitzer's. Just 17 of the poll's Democratic respondents said they viewed Stringer unfavorably, compared to 35 percent for Spitzer.
Second, many primary voters remain up for grabs. Nearly a quarter of Democrats said they had yet to make up their minds on the comptroller's race. And 65 percent of Democrats said they weren't paying very close attention.
"I don't know anything about Stringer. But I'm willing to learn more about him before the election gets here," said Miriam Lyles, 68, a Queens Democrat who responded to the poll. "But I clearly know what the other guy did ... and that does not rest well with me."
She said she couldn't understand why so many politicians were asking voters to look past their prior mistakes. "There's right, and there's wrong," Lyles said. "Can our city really afford a second chance?"
Miringoff pointed out that it is still early in the summer, and it will be weeks before many undecided voters pick sides.
"There is certainly the potential for change because so many voters are on the sidelines and the voters have not been swamped by … television advertising," Miringoff said. "This is still a race."
Spitzer said in a statement that his campaign won't be determined by polls, but added, "I am, however, gratified by these numbers and look forward to continuing a conversation with the voters about the issues that matter most to them."