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Third-party bid an uphill climb

Unity08, a nationwide bipartisan group dedicated to backing a third alternative to next year's Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, has been around for well more than a year.

But the movement didn't grab much attention from the press until last month, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he's leaving the Republican Party, the first step toward what could become an independent bid for the White House.

While Unity08 isn't climbing aboard a Bloomberg bandwagon yet, as if one existed at this early stage, the organization clearly is intrigued with a politician who is rich enough to self-fund his campaign and is perceived as a centrist who could move the country away from the partisan bickering running rampant in Washington.

"Michael Bloomberg is the perfect independent leader," Unity08 co-founder Jerry Rafshoon said in a prepared statement posted on the group's Web site the day Bloomberg made his announcement. "And, a very competent one who knows how to work across party lines to get results."

The timing appears to be right for a third-party presidential candidate to make waves.

American voters have shown divided loyalties to the two major parties during the last two federal election cycles.

President Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, scoring one for the Republicans. But Democrats bounced back last year to take control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, although again by a narrow margin.

Also, voters appear to be in the mood for an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats.

According to a recent poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek magazine, 57 percent of 1,001 registered voters said the two-party system does a poor job of addressing the issues that are important to them. Fifty-seven percent also agreed that America should have a third major political party.

But that doesn't mean Bloomberg would be the best candidate to put at the head of a third-party or independent movement.

The same Newsweek article that featured the Princeton poll pointed out that even in his home city, the mayor's lack of charisma is such that he probably could ride the subway unnoticed by his fellow passengers.

"As a third-party candidate, he'd start out with very few people knowing who he is," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

Besides being name recognition-challenged, Black said Bloomberg also lacks a couple of key attributes that have helped past third-party presidential candidates catch fire.

While Bloomberg's mayoral record in a difficult city to govern has given him an aura of competence, Black said there's no single galvanizing issue associated with him.

In 1992, Ross Perot made America's soaring budget deficit his signature issue. His pedantic chart-filled presentations hit home with voters worried about the impacts runaway government spending was having on the nation's economy, which was in the tank at the time.

Black said a Bloomberg candidacy also wouldn't carry a strong regional affiliation.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond's "Dixiecrat" third-party candidacy, a rebellion against the pro-civil rights positions being taken by then-Democratic President Harry Truman, captured 39 electoral votes from four states, all in the South.

Southerners also flocked to the third-party candidacy of George Wallace 20 years later. The Alabama governor won 46 electoral votes in 1968 from five Southern states, including Georgia.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, wouldn't even be able to count on his home state's electoral votes. If he runs, he could easily find himself pitted against New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, Republican Rudy Giuliani - his immediate predecessor as mayor - or both.

Right now, I don't see any state he would win," Black said.

To really grasp how difficult a challenge Bloomberg or any other third-party presidential hopeful would face, it's instructive to look at how past independents fared.

Perot, who made the best showing of any of recent vintage, garnered just 18.8 percent of the vote in 1992 and didn't win any electoral votes because he couldn't capture a majority in a single state.

Thurmond and Wallace, despite their electoral votes, did far worse than Perot overall, finishing in the single digits.

According to the Newsweek poll, Bloomberg's 11 percent would get him clobbered by Clinton's 47 percent and Giuliani's 36 percent.

Black said it's no surprise that no third-party candidate has ever won the presidency. Not with two so well-entrenched major parties, neither motivated to make room for a third way.

"The one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is the desirability of two major parties," Black said. "It makes it very difficult for a third-party candidate."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.