Conditions might be ripe for Bloomberg candidacy

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The conditions for an independent presidential run might be better in 2008 than at any time since Ross Perot made his first White House try, according to analysts and recent opinion surveys.

Those conditions, and his own deep pockets, might entice New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to enter the '08 contest. But Bloomberg indicated yesterday that he was still a long way from becoming a candidate, and there are serious questions about whether he would meet with much success if he did.

"I think the climate is as favorable as it gets, particularly for somebody like Bloomberg who can project an image of competence. That's been a major issue with the current administration," said John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

But "it's hard to see how he wins," Pitney said, though Bloomberg might get to "double digits in the popular vote, particularly if he puts a sizable fraction of his wealth into the race."

Pitney and others said it would be difficult to gauge Bloomberg's prospects until it is clear who the major-party nominees are.

This week, Bloomberg prompted heightened speculation about his plans when he quit the Republican Party and declared himself an independent. He has begun traveling the country to attract attention to himself and his anti-Washington message, which is highly critical of both parties.

Yesterday, he implied that the candidates are not offering solutions to the nation's problems.

"I'm particularly upset that the big issues of the time keep getting pushed to the back and we focus on small things that probably only inside the Beltway are important," he said in New York. "When you talk to people around this country, they care about who's going to pay their Social Security, they care about who's going to pay their medical care, they care about immigration, about our reputation overseas."

Bloomberg, 65, did not close the door on a presidential try, though he said again that his intention is to serve out his term as mayor, which ends in 2009. He described the speculation about him as "flattering."

"I'm not a candidate," he said, then quipped: "If everyone in the world was dead and I was the only one alive? Sure."

Recent surveys show that by a margin of roughly 3 to 1, Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country - similar to the sort of voter restiveness that helped propel Perot's candidacy in 1992.

But Bloomberg "doesn't have the [Perot] presence," said Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "You really have to have that to get the public's attention."

Despite surveys that indicate some dissatisfaction with the '08 candidates, particularly among Republicans, Bowman said the current field is "impressive," another factor that could impede Bloomberg's chances.

Home-state skepticism about a Bloomberg candidacy was reflected in a new poll by Quinnipiac University, which showed him running a distant third, with 16 percent, in a three-way matchup against Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (43 percent) and Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani (29 percent).

Nationally, a new analysis by the independent Pew Research Center found that Bloomberg's voter appeal is "very modest."

According to the Pew survey, nearly two out of three voters have heard of Bloomberg - making him better known than many of the '08 hopefuls, including Republicans Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee.

But only 9 percent of American voters who had heard of Bloomberg said there was a good chance that they would vote for him. Another 23 percent said there was some chance, while more than half of those surveyed - 56 percent - said there was no chance they'd back Bloomberg.

Even under the most favorable circumstances, Bloomberg would face an uphill challenge. No independent or third-party candidate has ever won a presidential election in this country.

"I don't think he's got much of a shot at it," said William G. Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University. "Maybe there's an opening for a uniquely charismatic individual who can convince Americans that he's not 'politics as usual.' I don't see Bloomberg being that particularly charismatic. As the public gets a look at him, will they say, 'Ooh, gosh, could I be part of that?' I doubt it."

Bloomberg's wealth - he is rumored to be willing to spend up to $500 million on a campaign - could enable him to rely more on paid advertising than retail politicking, where he is weak.

Perot, the Texas billionaire, used his own money to overcome one of the biggest obstacles for any independent candidate - earning a place on the ballot in all 50 states.

Perot, who built a sizable base of grass-roots supporters, found it increasingly difficult to maintain his advantage as an outsider as the campaign progressed. In the spring of 1992, Perot was leading Republican President George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in national polls. But after a series of missteps and increasingly negative publicity, Perot's popularity faded.

Perot quit the race in midsummer and re-entered in October. He placed third on Election Day, with 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.

Still, it was the best showing by a third-party or independent candidate since 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt finished second as the Progressive Party nominee.

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