By Edward Krudy
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In most election years, the campaign for New York City's top financial job is a sideshow affair compared with the larger battle for the mayor's office.
When a former governor who resigned in disgrace due to a prostitution scandal tosses his hat into the ring, the race for New York City comptroller can take center stage.
That is the story line in this year's unexpectedly heated Democratic primary for comptroller, a job that carries responsibility for overseeing New York City's $140 billion public pension fund, reviewing the city's $70 billion annual budget and auditing city agencies.
Tuesday's contest is seen as a tossup between disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer and Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough president who appeared to have the nomination all sewn up before Spitzer burst back onto the political scene in July.
The winner of the comptroller race is seen as a likely shoo-in for the job given a Republican has not won the post in over six decades.
The Democratic establishment and the city's big-hitting newspapers have backed Stringer. That has allowed Spitzer, nicknamed "Sheriff of Wall Street" for his crackdown on financial crime as state attorney general, to cast himself as an anti-establishment outsider ready to shake up a broken system.
Stringer has hit back by focusing on trust. He has attacked Spitzer for the prostitution scandal that led to his demise as governor in 2008 and painted him as a loose cannon.
"We need a steward not a sheriff, he lost the honor of that badge a long time ago," Stringer told Reuters in a recent interview. "This is about managing the finances of the city, about being a strong auditor and investigator."
Spitzer declined to be interviewed for this article.
The challenges are formidable. The new comptroller will inherit a city projecting a budget gap of $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2015 with fixed public sector benefit costs growing nearly 8 percent a year. Public sector workers are also demanding retroactive pay increases that the city says could cost nearly $8 billion, or more than 10 percent of the size of the fiscal year 2014 operating budget.
The race remains highly fluid. A Quinnipiac poll published on September 4 shows Spitzer trailing Stringer by 2 percentage points, a margin too thin to be decisive. That is a big change from an August 14 poll that showed Spitzer ahead by a 19 point margin.
In a joint New York Times and Siena College poll published on August 30 Spitzer was still leading Stringer by 15 points and indicated Stringer was struggling with name recognition outside his home borough. That compares to Spitzer's near celebrity status.
Harrison Goldin, city comptroller for 16 years before an unsuccessful bid for mayor, said the sharp reversal in at least one of the polls was encouraging for Stringer and showed Democratic voters becoming more familiar with him.
"Spitzer's early and dramatic lead was a factor of name recognition," said Harrison Goldin. "Stinger is pulling even and in my mind is highly likely now to win."
Goldin, who called the contest "the most dramatic race for Comptroller in memory", has endorsed Stringer for the nomination.
Stringer has picked up endorsements from the New York Times, and the city's tabloid papers the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Spitzer, by comparison, has been endorsed by the Queens Chronicle.
Spitzer inherited his family's real estate wealth and self-funded his campaign to the tune of $3.7 million, records from the New York Campaign Finance Board show.
Spitzer's late candidacy meant the Stringer campaign had to hire extra hands and ramp up its fund raising to stay competitive, according to a person close to the campaign. Records show Stringer raised $3.2 million from 5,600 donations.
Doug Muzzio, an expert in New York politics at Baruch College, believes Stringer may have the edge in getting the party faithful out to vote on election day, a factor he believes will be decisive.
"With Stringer's organizational muscle, with all the unions, all the political establishment in his corner one would expect they would have a substantial get out the vote operation," he said.
The winner in the September 10 primary vote will face John Burnett, the unopposed Republican candidate, on November 5. A Republican has not held the post since Joseph McGoldrick, who served from 1938 to 1945.
(Reporting by Edward Krudy: Editing by Tiziana Barghini and Andrew Hay)