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NEW YORK - Anthony Weiner set out to reintroduce himself to voters Thursday as he embarked on a mayoral bid after leaving Congress in a sexting scandal. He found a much more supportive reception in his first day of campaigning than he did from the state's top Democrat, who bluntly criticized his candidacy a day earlier.
At a Democratic political forum in the Bronx in which he faced some of his political opponents for the first time, Weiner was greeted with warm applause after delivering a speech that included an apology.
"I'm sorry," he told the forum. "You put a great deal of hope and confidence in me, and I did some very embarrassing things."
Afterward, he faced questions about how he would accomplish his policy goals in the face of tough politics, but not about the risque tweets and obfuscating explanations that have largely defined his image for the last two years.
Earlier, residents greeted the Democratic candidate at a Harlem subway station with handshakes and plenty of concerns — about teacher contracts, manufacturing jobs, the problems of the mentally ill and other public issues.
Weiner seemed to relish his first time stumping since his last congressional race in 2010, answering voters and a throng of reporters with a combination of enthusiasm about airing his ideas for the city, humility about his past transgressions and occasional flashes of the wisecracking demeanor for which he was known in Washington. When one reporter asked how voters had embraced him so far, Weiner asked one of the residents in the crowd, Linda Smalls, for a hug.
"This is how they've embraced me," he said.
"If citizens want to talk to me about my personal failings, that's their right, and I'm going to do everything I can to answer them," he said a few minutes later. But "frankly, I think most New Yorkers, particularly those in the middle class in communities like this, they want to talk about the solutions to the challenges that New York City faces. That's what they care about, and I want to try to provide some answers."
After about a month of maybes, Weiner officially launched his comeback campaign with a video posted online late Tuesday. However he does when the polls close, he's certain to add drama to the heated race to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also leads the state Democratic Party, said Wednesday it would be a "shame" if Weiner were elected mayor.
Speaking to editors at the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper, the governor, who also leads the state Democratic Party, said that if Weiner won, "Shame on us."
In New Paltz on Thursday, Cuomo ducked a question about the comment, saying only that he didn't have an official position on the mayor's race.
"And I'm going to leave it at that," he said.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi declined to comment.
Weiner, a former councilman and seven-term congressman, ran for mayor in 2005 and nearly did in 2009. He's getting into this year's race with a $4.8 million campaign bank account and the possibility of $1 million more in public matching money. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found Weiner getting 15 percent of the Democratic primary vote, behind all other Democratic contenders except City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, with 25 percent.
Outside the subway station Thursday, Smalls said she'd vote for Weiner "because I like the work that he's done in the past.
"Even though he made a mistake, you know, we're human. He's human. He apologized for it, and it's time to move on," she said, though she couldn't resist a wink at his notoriety: "Instead of a hug, I really wanted a text," she joked.
With less than four months left before the primary, Weiner also is confronting some clear challenges.
The Quinnipiac poll found that 49 percent of city voters think he shouldn't even run. He has only recently hired campaign staffers, and some influential players in Democratic politics have already endorsed other contenders. Weiner said he'd made calls Wednesday to some community leaders and officials to tell them about his candidacy but didn't ask them for endorsements.
In a sign of the scrutiny of his fledgling campaign, it scrambled to replace a background photo atop his website after observers noted snarkily that the image featured appeared to be Pittsburgh's skyline, not New York's. The company that built the site, NGP VAN, said it had mistakenly chosen the photo thinking it was of New York.
And the scandal that forced Weiner from office continues to spur questions. During an interview Thursday with WNYC-AM radio, he said he wouldn't make such mistakes again — "I have put these things behind me" — but he said it was possible that more of his past messages might emerge if recipients chose to come forward now.
Meanwhile, a former pornography actress who said in 2011 that Weiner had sent her sexually suggestive messages lamented that he'd gotten into the mayor's race.
"I would just like to go on with my life and career in business without having to think about Anthony Weiner," Ginger Lee said in a statement released through her Los Angeles-based attorney, Gloria Allred. A Weiner spokeswoman didn't immediately respond.
After a photo of a man's bulging underpants appeared on Weiner's Twitter account in 2011, he initially claimed his account had been hacked. Then more risque photos surfaced, including one of him bare-chested in his congressional office, and the married congressman ultimately acknowledged exchanging inappropriate messages with several women and resigned.
"It was simply a blind spot. It was a thoughtlessness that I had about my private behavior," he told WNYC, reiterating that he lied about the tweets because he didn't want his then-pregnant wife, Huma Abedin, to find out about them. She has said she has forgiven him.
Weiner is positioning himself as a champion for the middle class and those working to get there. His proposals range from creating a city-run, single-payer health system for the uninsured — he'd use Medicaid money to pay for it — to sending vans to shopping centers so business owners needn't trek to city offices to contest fines. He was due to face some of his opponents for the first time at a Democratic candidate forum Thursday evening.
Some of his rivals have said they welcome him to the race, including Democratic former City Comptroller William Thompson, whose campaign used Weiner's arrival as a jumping-off point for a fundraising email. But others quickly started leveling criticisms, including Democratic former City Councilman Sal Albanese and Republican John Catsimatidis, who both rapped Weiner as a "career politician."
Follow Jennifer Peltz at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz
Associated Press writer Jake Pearson contributed to this report.