NEW YORK - Anthony Weiner's improbable recovery from political punch line to leading New York City mayoral contender has been imperiled by revelations that he continued to have illicit online correspondence with women after leaving Congress. Now he faces serious questions as to whether he can still win - or even keep his campaign afloat until Election Day.
"I think it hurts him very badly, but I'm not sure it finishes him," said Kenneth Sherrill, a retired political science professor at Hunter College. "It brings back his most public negatives and it undermines his credibility.
"But he is an incredibly strong campaigner," Sherrill said. "And when he can get his message through, it resonates with lots of voters."
Weiner stepped down from the House of Representatives in 2011 after admitting he digitally sent lewd photos to women he had never met in person. His entry into the mayoral race in May was greeted by mocking headlines in the city's tabloids, but he met the scandal directly, apologizing for his behavior and asking New Yorkers for a second chance.
Many voters seemed inclined to oblige, greeting him warmly on the campaign trail. A gifted politician, Weiner largely forged past the sexting scandal and ran an issues-based campaign.
That changed Tuesday, when a gossip website printed X-rated excerpts of online conversations Weiner had with then-22-year-old Sydney Leathers of Indiana last summer. That correspondence ended mere months before Weiner declared his candidacy.
With his wife alongside, Weiner apologized and promised that the "behavior is behind me." He later admitted that he traded racy messages with at least three women since leaving office.
He vowed to stay in the race, saying he believed "people care more about their futures than my past with my wife and my embarrassing things."
Weiner can't run from the controversy, veteran city political consultant Bob Liff said.
"You get out there every day; you take the hard questions every day. At some point, the press gets tired and you get your message out," said Liff, who is unaffiliated with any campaign.
Weiner, though damaged, still has a chance, Liff said, noting that there are still nearly 50 days until the Sept. 10 primary and that no one else in the Democratic field had seized control of the race.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn led the race before Weiner jumped in but slipped behind him in most polls over the past two months. But a one-day poll conducted after Weiner's latest revelations put her in first by 9 points over Weiner, who was closely trailed by ex-city Comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
"People are going to make up their minds late," Liff said. "I never write somebody out, even if they're asking for a second - or third, or fourth - chance."
But some political pundits are ready to pen Weiner's political obituary.
"He's finished," said Columbia University professor Ester Fuchs. "I think he was very fortunate to have a media framing his comeback in terms of forgiveness, but I think voters are fatigued."
Fuchs questioned the strength of Weiner's support.
"The public doesn't start really paying attention until the end of August," Fuchs said. "Celebrity and notoriety, that's all that was reflected in the polls."
The former congressman lacks the backing from unions and political clubs that provide critical foot soldiers in get-out-the-vote drives, crucial in what is expected to be a low-turnout primary. If none of the candidates reaches 40 percent of the vote, the top two advance to a runoff three weeks later.
Weiner's top rivals all condemned his behavior, and some urged him to drop out. Sherrill believes they would be wise to go silent.
"They need to define themselves, not talk about Weiner and give him more attention," he said. The other campaigns, he added, likely "want to see Weiner in that runoff," thinking that undecideds would break against the scandal-scarred candidate in a two-person showdown.
Weiner, meanwhile, should simply "embrace" his embattled persona, Sherrill suggested.
"New Yorkers like a tough guy, they like a fighter," Sherrill said. "Just keep campaigning.
"But I don't think it hurts to tell the truth."