NEW YORK (AP) - Eliot Spitzer, whose 2008 resignation as New York's governor amid a prostitution scandal provided no shortage of fuel for gibes to late-night TV comics, ventured into the lion's den Friday, appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Spitzer appeared on Leno's show in California less than 24 hours after a four-day flurry of canvassing for 3,750 valid petitions to run for city comptroller- submitting over 27,000 petitions to the city Board of Elections late Thursday night ahead of a midnight deadline.
And Leno, who has poked at Spitzer's reentrance to New York City's politics since the former attorney general announced Sunday he was running to be the city's comptroller, asked him straight up: "Why enter at the 11th hour?"
Spitzer said that after all he'd done in the past five years he finally thought, "You know what, there's a position there, which I've written about, thought about, the Controller's position, from which I think I can actually serve," he said. "And I said to myself I want to contribute through public service."
Leno's show has provided a stage before for candidates launching unexpected campaigns: Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his ultimately successful run for California governor on Leno's set in 2003. The program also has been a memorable forum for public figures' atonement moments, as when actor Hugh Grant made his first TV appearance after he was arrested with a prostitute in 1995.
Spitzer's appearance came after his leading rival said earlier Friday he wouldn't challenge the tarnished ex-governor's petitions to run for city comptroller, leaving Spitzer's surprise comeback campaign a clearer path toward the Democratic primary this fall.
Other contenders or voters can contest a candidate's signatures for reasons ranging from an ambiguous address to a canvasser who's not registered in the candidate's party. But Democratic comptroller hopeful Scott Stringer, who was a heavy favorite in the comptroller's race before Spitzer got into it Monday, said he had no plans to contest Spitzer's signatures and would encourage supporters not to do so, either.
"I'm not someone who challenges petitions," Stringer, who is currently Manhattan's borough president, said while greeting voters Friday in downtown Brooklyn. "Let's get into the fight now."
While they won't face Spitzer in the primary, Republican candidate John Burnett and Libertarian Kristin Davis, a former madam who has criticized Spitzer, also said through aides that they wouldn't challenge his petitions.
Spitzer's campaign said in a statement Friday he "looks forward to making the case every day for an independent comptroller for the City of New York."
On the "Tonight Show," Leno admired Spitzer for his work as attorney general going after Wall Street and the mob and then asked him how he could "make this big a blunder," referencing the prostitution scandal.
"People who fall prey to hubris, end up falling themselves," Spitzer said, adding there was no good explanation for his behavior. "And this is something that I think infected me."
"Saturday Night Live" actor Bill Hader, who did an impression of Spitzer in a 2010 skit, joked with the ex-governor, who said he decided to get back into public life about a year ago and with his family's approval.
Leno gleefully seized on Spitzer's newborn candidacy earlier this week, particularly relishing the fact that Davis is also a contender.
"There's a tough choice for the voters, huh? I mean, one is involved in the most degrading profession of all time, and the other ran a whorehouse," Leno said during Monday's opening monologue.
Spitzer's last-minute, self-financed candidacy hurled a curveball into what had seemed a straightforward race for the city's top financial post, one that conducts audits and invests huge city employee pension funds.
On Leno's show, he touted his record pursuing financial crimes, telling Leno "Wall Street desperately wants me to lose," because of his previous work as attorney general, and added he would use the comptroller's control over the city's pension funds to pursue Wall Street again.
"That is where the power really comes from," he said. "$140 billion of pension funds, which in the equity markets are a lever to control corporate governance, reign in CEO pay, make sure that the Wall Street titans are acting fairly and honestly, making sure that the markets are functioning properly, making sure capital is allocated as it should be."
Earlier in the evening, the Wall Street Journal reported Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, the former American International Group Inc. chief executive, had filed a defamation lawsuit against Spitzer in state Supreme Court. An attorney for Greenberg did not immediately return a request for comment. Spitzer's campaign issued a statement calling the lawsuit frivolous.
Spitzer quickly jumped to a 42 percent-to-33 percent lead among registered Democrats, including those leaning toward but not settled on a candidate, according to a The Wall Street Journal-NBC 4 New York-Marist poll taken in the first two days of his campaign.
Pundits, and even Spitzer himself, had said it would be a challenge to get the needed signatures in just four days; other candidates had started in early June. Campaigns generally gather at least two to three times as many signatures as needed, as a cushion in case some are invalidated.
Stringer said he submitted more than 100,000 signatures, all of them gathered by volunteers; Spitzer's campaign paid canvassers.
Burnett, who has worked in various financial capacities on Wall Street, filed about 8,000 signatures and was looking forward to facing whomever wins the Democratic primary, his campaign said.
"We especially wish Eliot the best of luck," the Burnett camp said in a statement Friday.
Green Party candidate Julia Willebrand's campaign didn't immediately respond to messages Thursday and Friday.
Associated Press writers Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Jake Pearson in New York contributed to this report.
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