NEW YORK — Eliot Spitzer's 11th-hour comeback campaign isn't just a race to the finish. It's a sprint to the start.
After plunging into city comptroller's race Monday, the scandal-scarred ex-governor has only until midnight Thursday to collect 3,750 valid petition signatures to get on the Democratic primary ballot for September.
"It's going to be a tough burden," he said, clipboard and petition in hand, at his first campaign appearance Monday, though he has since said he's comfortable his campaign will meet the requirement. As the clock ticked Wednesday, spokeswoman Lisa Linden said the campaign was "diligently gathering signatures" and declined to comment further.
Experts say it's a formidable, but achievable, task in such a narrow timeframe.
"That's the real challenge, the four days," said Jerry Skurnik, a longtime New York Democratic consultant who isn't working with Spitzer. "It could be done, if they spend enough money and they're really organized."
Spitzer, a Democrat who resigned in his second year as governor after being identified as a client of a pricey escort service that was under federal investigation, moved quickly on getting signatures after announcing his surprise decision to seek New York City's top financial office.
His self-financed campaign posted an online ad Monday offering canvassers $12 an hour to gather signatures and set a petition-signing party for Wednesday evening. (But while the campaign is offering those incentives, consulting firm BrownMillerGroup said Wednesday that a report that signature-gatherers were getting $800 a day was inaccurate.)
The process can be painstaking. In Spitzer's case, signers need to be registered Democrats who live in the city and haven't signed another comptroller hopeful's petition. Signers must supply their names and addresses and date the forms, and signature-gatherers also have to fill out certain information.
City candidates were allowed to start petitioning in early June, and many did. Campaigns generally gather two to three times as many signatures as needed, in case some are challenged as having an incomplete address, a missing date, a signer who's not actually a registered Democrat, or other flaws.
Some candidates submit many extra signatures as a show of strength. Leading Spitzer rival Scott Stringer, a Democrat and currently the Manhattan borough president, has garnered upwards of 100,000 signatures, his campaign said.
His petitioners have been volunteers, campaign manager Sascha Owen said.
Spitzer has said he's aiming for 7,500 signatures. He picked up several himself Monday as he made his way through a Manhattan park, encircled by reporters.
Spitzer is trying to stress how he'd use his experience to create a more muscular comptroller's office. As attorney general before his time as governor, he became known for going after fraud, self-dealing and shady practices on Wall Street.
But he hasn't yet quieted criticism about the scandal that ended his political career.
Two women's-rights group leaders held a news conference Wednesday to denounce his candidacy. "Why would you vote for the guy who used women as objects" and threw the state into turmoil when the allegations came to light, asked Sonia Ossorio, the president of the National Organization for Women's New York City chapter.
And Spitzer faced continued questions in TV interviews about his conduct in office and after.
"It was alleged, and I did not deny, and I faced up to the allegation, acknowledged it – I had participated in seeing prostitutes. ... I tried as best as I could in the context of that moment to hold myself accountable by resigning," he said Tuesday night on "The Charlie Rose Show," which airs on PBS stations.
Spitzer was never charged with any crime. Asked on Tuesday night's show and on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Wednesday whether he had patronized prostitutes since his resignation, he said he hadn't.
Other comptroller contenders include Republican John Burnett, who has worked on Wall Street; Green Party candidate Juila Willebrand, a former teacher; and Libertarian Kristin Davis, a former madam.
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