Publicly, Michael Bloomberg does not have a position on which candidate he would prefer to see nominated by the Democratic Party.
Privately, though, the mayor's campaign aides have a definite preference, admitting that they would much rather run against the likable but unthreatening city comptroller, Bill Thompson, than against the exquisitely pesky Anthony Weiner.
According to Bloomberg campaign sources—who are not at all convinced that the voluble congressman from Brooklyn is really out of the running, and suspect that he is preparing to jump in at the end of May if Thompson hasn't demonstrated an ability to rally the party—they're taking specific steps to foreclose Weiner's options.
"We're going after South Brooklyn political leaders and clubs, we're canvassing in his district," said one senior Bloomberg campaign official. "It takes whatever natural base he would have and closes it off to him."
Officials in the Bloomberg campaign say they are aware of the strengths that both Thompson and Weiner bring to the race.
Thompson can lay claim to a base of African-American voters. He has solid connections in the Democratic establishment—Bloomberg's well-funded raids notwithstanding—and he has shown the ability to win a citywide race, having beaten a better-financed candidate for comptroller in 2001. (Of course, the comparison of the former councilman Herbert Berman to the billionaire incumbent mayor—a Thompson talking point—is risible. But it's not nothing.)
By contrast, Weiner's claim to a locked-down base of outer-borough strugglers is an aspirational one. But, as his surprisingly strong showing in the 2005 mayoral primary demonstrated, he is a very good campaigner. The Bloomberg camp—which is full of operatives who, like Weiner, graduated from the Chuck Schumer school of politics—is well aware of Weiner's ability to build a narrative, command press coverage and just be unignorably annoying.
Naturally, Weiner's campaign is also of the opinion that their candidate would be the more effective against Bloomberg in a general election. They point to his performance in polls, which show him, at least before money figures into the equation, to be in a reasonably competitive position against the mayor. And they say that, despite his public non-commitment to the race, he has continued to call donors for contributions.
"He hasn't stopped," said a source in the Weiner campaign. "He's still calling."
About that, though. For Weiner, as for any prospective Bloomberg opponent, money would be a real problem.
The facts, according to the campaign finance board, are as follows: Weiner had, as of the March 11 filing, raised about $5.2 million dollars. He was within $4,000 of reaching the $250,000 threshold at which the city would begin to match local contributions made to him of $175 or less at a six-to-one ratio, which would give him an extra $1.5 million dollars and bring his total war chest to roughly $6.7 million.
The cap on spending in the primary is $6.2 million, but Weiner would hope to spend as little as possible on the primary—a consideration that also explains, in part, his recent decision to put his campaign in a state of suspended animation, pending a Thompson collapse—and roll his donations into a general contest against Bloomberg, at which point the first $175 of each eligible donation would be matched by the city at a rate of about 8.5 to one. (Any unspent primary funds that had already been matched by the city at a six-to-one ratio would receive only an additional 2.5-to-one bonus.)
The next filing is due on May 15 and covers the period extending to May 11.
The source in Weiner's campaign said that he is currently focusing on raising the smaller matching funds. Except for the $4,950-per-donor limit, there is currently no restriction on Weiner's raising money for the primary or general election right now.
Which all sounds fine, but for the fact that he'd be running against a multi-billionaire who has already spent $7 million on his campaign, hiring a staff that includes the communications directors of both the Hillary Clinton and John McCain presidential campaigns and flooding the airwaves with positive, reputation-fortifying messages.
What's more, while the Bloomberg campaign doesn't need to seek donations, they are betting that they can preemptively shut down the natural sources of donations for Weiner: real estate interests, Jewish groups, labor unions, Clinton donors. (Weiner supported Hillary Clinton with die-hard zeal during the presidential primary; shepherded Chelsea Clinton around the campaign trail; and has dated one of Clinton's closest advisers, Huma Abedin.)
One Jewish leader I spoke to said, somewhat ominously, "This community knows Anthony since he was a city councilman, the community has been more supportive of him than anyone else, we're big fans of Anthony Weiner and we have raised money for him in the past. But if he gets back in, he will see that a lot of his support will have dried up. Before he gets back, he would be wise to gauge his support."
It should be said that the very fact that the Bloomberg campaign feels it has the luxury of trying to engineer a result on the Democratic side is an indication of the somewhat surreal state of things.
"I guess if you have hired most of the major campaign specialists in the city, they are likely to try to earn their keep, and one way to do that is to try and come up with who is better to run against," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "They have to justify their existence, and this is as good as any way to do that."
For the record, Miringoff agreed with the Bloomberg camp that Weiner would be the more bothersome opponent for the mayor.
"He probably would be more aggressive in targeting a message and the theme would probably maximize whatever anti-Bloomberg sentiment there is," he said. "He might peel away some of the soft Bloomberg support, which, I guess from a political-consultant standpoint, that makes him less attractive as an opponent."
Anne Fenton, a spokeswoman for Bill Thompson's campaign, said in a statement: "This is the type of distracting, petty politics that people are tired of. New Yorkers are far more concerned about Mike Bloomberg raising their sales taxes, cutting vital services and threatening to lay off thousands of workers than to waste time worrying about which candidate will defeat the Mayor in November."