NEW YORK — "Weiner Exposed." "Weiner's Pickle." "Battle of the Bulge."
Those were some of the tabloid headlines lampooning Rep. Anthony Weiner as he struggled to explain how a photo of a man's crotch had been posted to his Twitter account. The normally media-savvy New York Democrat squandered his chance to make it right with a cringe-inducing TV blitz that raised more questions than it answered.
It's a surprising turn for the pugnacious 46-year old Brooklyn native, who until this mess was widely seen as one of the smartest members of Congress. But the fallout from the incident has highlighted his weaknesses, casting him as both a thin-skinned brawler who berates reporters for asking questions and a publicity hog who seems to relish media attention, no matter how it comes his way.
"The more he talks about it, the more problems he raises," said former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. "I think he's a very brilliant young man with a brilliant future. But this is unnecessary heartache."
Weiner has spent his professional life in the rough-and-tumble of New York politics, starting as a legislative assistant to then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, now the state's senior senator. Weiner was elected to the New York City Council before winning Schumer's House seat in 1998, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
For years, Weiner was a high-energy but not particularly visible House member. His national profile skyrocketed during the long debate over President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and 2010. Weiner's outspoken support for a government-run program for everyone known as a "single-payer" plan and later a "public option" to compete with private health insurance made him a liberal icon even though both proposals failed to make it into law.
Since then, Weiner has used cable news appearances and speeches on the House floor to great strategic effect. He lambasted GOP colleagues for slowing a vote on health benefits for first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks. He once suggested a drinking game in which his audience of C-SPAN cable network viewers would "take a shot" each time Republicans made misstatements on the health care overhaul.
"Please assign a designated driver," Weiner cracked. "This is going to be a long afternoon."
For the past year, Weiner has taken to the social networking site Twitter to crack jokes and needle Republicans on policy matters. While many members of Congress use Twitter to discuss pending legislation and upcoming appearances in their districts, Weiner has used it to connect with a wider online audience and further burnish his reputation as a champion of liberal causes.
"GOP tries to squirrel out of their support for ending Medicare. "NoDisrespectToSquirrels," he Tweeted on May 25. Chiding Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker now seeking the GOP presidential nomination, Weiner Tweeted, "He's the brains of the field, right? TallestPygmy."
Weiner also uses Twitter to poke fun at himself and his surname. His high school graduation portrait – complete with a 1980s-era turquoise turtleneck and a halo of curls_ serves as his Twitter profile photo, and he made good on his promise to post his 1977 bar mitzvah photo when he reached 10,000 followers.
One Twitter follower was Genette Cordova, a Washington state college student identified as the intended recipient of the waist-down photo of a man in bulging underpants. Cordova is one of just 198 people Weiner follows in Twitter, and he hasn't clearly explained why a 21-year-old female student would be on that short list. Both he and Cordova insist they have never met in person or had any inappropriate exchanges. Cordova did say she called Weiner her "boyfriend" once on Twitter.
Weiner has denied sending the photo, which was directed to Cordova but was posted to all his Twitter followers and publicized by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. In interview after interview, Weiner refused to say "with certitude" whether it was a photo of him. The dodge struck many as disingenuous.
"You would know if this was your underpants," CNN's Wolf Blitzer told him.
The incident has made Weiner a punch line on late night talk shows while raising questions about his judgment and temperament.
His marriage last July to Huma Abedin, a close aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, made Weiner an honorary member of one of the Democratic Party's leading families. Clinton hosted an engagement party for the couple at her Washington home, where she told guests she considered Abedin her second daughter. Bill Clinton officiated at their wedding in the gardens of Long Island's Oheka Castle.
Abedin was at work all week at the State Department. Friends say she has handled the situation with confidence and is supporting Weiner through it.
"Huma is a consummate professional and is firing on all cylinders as she always does, not missing a beat," friend and State Department colleague Philippe Reines said.
Few of Weiner's Democratic colleagues have come to Weiner's defense this week. That's a consequence, some say, of his reputation for self-promotion.
New York has weathered a number of political sex scandals in recent years, most notably the resignation of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008 amid evidence he had patronized a high-end prostitution ring. While the Weiner controversy does not rise to that level and there's been little talk of a resignation, but it can't help but affect any plan he may have to run to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when the mayor's third term ends in 2013.
Weiner lost a bid for the nomination once before, in 2005, and has said it's the only job he wants more than serving in Congress. He's been considered a top candidate in what's expected to be a crowded field.
"The problem is, it's all so subject to ridicule," Koch said. "He doesn't know if he took a picture of himself? It only gets crazier and crazier."