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Bloomberg exit from GOP hints at '08 run

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Michael S. Bloomberg already has his name plastered on the walls of the Johns Hopkins University, on the highly successful financial-information company that earned him billions and on the mayor's office in New York City.

Now, it seems increasingly clear, he wouldn't mind putting it on the Oval Office at the White House, too. The Republican mayor took a significant step yesterday toward a potential independent candidacy for president by announcing that he was quitting his party and becoming an independent.

Bloomberg, 65, who cannot run again for mayor because of term limits, has yet to announce a presidential candidacy. Indeed, while he has stoked speculation, he has seemingly sought to deflate it by denying he has plans to run. "A short, Jewish billionaire from New York? C'mon," he has said when asked about his potential 2008 candidacy.

In a statement released by his office last evening, Bloomberg, a former Democrat, said that his "plans for the future haven't changed." He then went on to list achievements that his "nonpartisan approach" had produced for his city on many of the domestic issues central to the '08 campaign: economic growth, public health, security and education.

"We have achieved real progress by overcoming the partisanship that too often puts narrow interests above the common good," he said. "Any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular ideology. Working together, there's no limit to what we can do."

Bloomberg's statement was released while he was in California on a trip that has stoked further interest in his Washington ambitions.

Featured with popular California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover of this week's Time magazine (which portrayed them as "The New Action Heroes"), the mayor delivered a major speech Monday night in Los Angeles that had all the earmarks of a presidential campaign address. He also made a recent visit to New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state. (It was merely a social visit to attend his girlfriend's college reunion, he explained.)

An independent run by Bloomberg would have to surmount the same hurdles that face any third-party candidate in a system dominated by Democrats and Republicans. Simply obtaining a place on the ballot is an arduous and expensive task in most states, often requiring petitions signed by large numbers of voters.

That might be less of a problem for Bloomberg than for most independent contenders. His personal wealth would allow him to hire signature-collection companies to do the job.

The financial information company he founded and largely owns, Bloomberg LP, is privately held. His share of the company has been estimated to be worth as much as $13 billion. (Forbes magazine has pegged his wealth at a more modest $5.5 billion.)

The last major third-party candidate to seek the presidency was, like Bloomberg, a wealthy self-made man - Ross Perot - who also largely funded his own campaign. In 1992, Perot led in the polls for a time, before quitting the race; he re-entered and wound up with about 19 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes.

Perot's candidacy that year served as a catalyst, however, boosting Democratic nominee Bill Clinton's chances and, many Republicans believe, hurting the re-election chances of incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Bloomberg's potential impact on the '08 contest has been a matter of considerable speculation. Rising voter discontent with politics in Washington is reminiscent of the mood in the early 1990s, and the mayor has sought to position himself as an antidote to the capital's partisanship.

In remarks delivered Monday in Los Angeles at a conference on "bridging the political divide," Bloomberg launched an all-out assault on Washington's politics.

America, he said, was "at a crossroads" because of "paralyzed decision-making, primarily at the federal level," that ignored "the big issues of the day."

"I believe we can turn around our country's current, wrong-headed course, if we start basing our actions on ideas, shared values and a commitment to solve problems without regard to party," Bloomberg said.

The mayor went on to call for a "cease-fire" between Republicans and Democrats that would, he said, "move America forward." He also mentioned the benefits of "good, old-fashioned honesty and common sense," yoked to nonpartisan leadership.

A Bloomberg candidacy would potentially hurt the Republican more than the Democratic ticket, said Paul Maslin, a pollster who worked for Perot in 1992.

"He may seal the fate of whomever the Republican nominee will be," said Maslin, who is working for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico.

He added that it would "tough for Bloomberg to trump" the candidacy of any of the major Democrats, who would be promoting change at the White House after eight years of Republican control. But other analysts have said that Bloomberg could hurt the Democrats more.

Maslin did muse about the possibility that Rudolph Giuliani's successor as mayor could find himself challenging both Giuliani and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - setting up a three-way contest in which every candidate hailed from the Empire State.

"The guy has got more chutzpah than ever existed in America, or else he's going to try to tell us something from New York about these other two candidates," Maslin said.

Bloomberg, a Massachusetts native, has never been accused of having a shortage of ego. After being fired from the Wall Street firm where he was working, he founded a financial information service in the early 1980s that placed its computer terminals on desks around the world and earned him billions.

Turning his attention to politics, he changed his party affiliation to Republican in order to win the mayoralty in New York after it became clear that he couldn't win as a Democrat.

He spent more than $150 million of his own money to win election in 2001 and re-election in 2005. He has been a benefactor of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, whose board of trustees he chaired and whose fundraising drives he championed.

The Sun has reported that he has donated at least $200 million to the school, making him its largest donor. Much of the money he contributed has gone for stem cell research, an emotional issue in the '08 campaign. In 2001, Hopkins renamed its school of public health in his honor. In 2005, Business Week ranked Bloomberg as the 13th most generous philanthropist in the nation, with an estimated lifetime giving of $733 million. He is a 1964 electrical engineering graduate of Hopkins.

This week, Bloomberg refused to rule out the prospect of a presidential run during a visit to the campus of Google Inc., which has been holding question-and-answer sessions with '08 candidates. He also didn't refute news reports that he recently discussed an independent presidential bid with former Democratic Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma.

His new, official Web site, mikebloomberg.com, which features his life story, recent speeches and news coverage, is similar to the sites of announced candidates, as well as those, such as former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who are considering making an entry into the already crowded '08 field.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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