05/23/2013 05:36 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Anthony Weiner kicks off attempt at political redemption despite tabloid mockery

WASHINGTON - Two years after his already pun-friendly surname became associated with a lewd Twitter scandal, Anthony Weiner officially kicked off his mission for political redemption on Thursday, hitting the campaign trail in his improbable bid to become mayor of New York City.

The disgraced onetime congressman, forced into retirement after he confessed to sending crotch shots to some of his female Twitter followers, has acknowledged he faces an uphill battle.

But the Democrat, a fierce champion for progressive causes during his seven terms in Congress, told reporters on Thursday that he's optimistic New Yorkers might be willing to forgive and forget.

"I frankly have been encouraged by how many people say they're prepared to give me a second chance and just listen to my ideas," Weiner said following a campaign stop in Harlem, where he was greeted enthusiastically by voters.

New Yorkers "in middle-class communities like this, they want to talk about the challenges that New York faces. That's what they care about and I want to provide some answers."

Weiner, however, was also on the receiving end of some unsolicited advice from a homeless woman in the crowd who shouted to him: "Stop going online and texting and stuff, man! I ain't worried about you, that's your business, just stay off line. Stay off instagram, man!"

Pundits have largely written off Weiner, pointing to the fact that he's persona non grata among the party's leadership less than four months before the Democratic primary.

"I can't imagine him pulling it off," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at D.C.'s Brookings Institution who once worked for Richard Nixon.

"Why would New Yorkers want or need him?"

Weiner's hardly inspiring excitement from fellow Democrats either. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said "shame on us" on Thursday when asked about the prospect of voters actually electing Weiner.

Nonetheless, the former lawmaker has big-time name recognition, a $5 million war chest and potentially another $1 million in public donations.

And polls suggest he's ahead of all other Democrats but one, frontrunner Christine Quinn, the speaker of New York's city council. A new survey released Thursday suggested Quinn is losing ground in the race.

Weiner wouldn't be the first American politician to mount a political comeback after a sex scandal.

Mark Sanford is the most recent example of a politician who found forgiveness at the polls following a high-profile scandal. The former South Carolina governor — hounded from the job after he disappeared from office for a few days before admitting to an extra-marital affair — was elected to U.S. Congress earlier this month.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter won re-election to the Senate in 2010 after being identified three years earlier as a client of a Washington, D.C., prostitution service.

And Bill Clinton — who officated at Weiner's wedding to his wife, Huma Abedin, three years ago — survived Republican efforts to impeach him after his romance with a 21-year-old White House intern went public during his second term.

But Hess says Weiner's political ambitions don't offer enough to New Yorkers.

"He's asking for some sort of personal salvation: 'Restore me, give me back my good name.' But why should they? There needs to be a reason why people vote for someone. They might do it out of a great congruence of ideology, but he doesn't give New Yorkers something they can't get from other candidates."

Weiner disagrees, saying in the video that kicked off his campaign that he's determined to focus on the middle class and to make New York the "middle class capital of the world."

He added he's been fighting for the middle class throughout his political career.

"Just about everything I’ve done in my public life has been animated by the notion that, for those who are in the middle class and struggling to make it, things have gotten worse," he said.

Not only are Weiner's political ambitions tenacious, so too are the New York tabloids' rejuvenated fun with his surname since he announced Tuesday at midnight that he's running for mayor.

The New York Daily News ran a shirtless photo of Weiner with the accompanying headline: "He's Got Some Balls." A headline on the paper's sidebar on Weiner's media strategy was equally cheeky: "Shy Weiner Shrivels Up, Spends Campaign Day One At Home."

The New York Post, meantime, said the candidate played "hide the Weiner" with reporters in announcing his bid for the job past many print deadlines.

As always, Weiner was good-natured on Thursday about his surname after a voter assured him he was "going to be the winner."

He replied: "I'm already the Weiner!"