Six months ago, when I began hearing rumors of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's possible interest in an independent presidential campaign in 2008, I went to see the mayor at his City Hall office.
He told me what he has said repeatedly ever since - that his intention was to finish his second term in 2009 as "the best mayor this city has ever had," and then devote himself to philanthropy and good works. He then steered the conversation to city issues and explained what he was trying to do on housing, transportation and social services - an impressive agenda.
I barely knew him, and I took him at his word about the presidency.
When I talked the next day to Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, the man who had steered the billionaire communications-company mogul to victory in city campaigns, I got a rather different story.
Sheekey drew a picture of a country ready and willing to consider electing a president without a party label. He cited the success of independent candidates for governor in Maine and Minnesota, and most of all, he talked about what Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing in California - governing as a "post-partisan" leader of that mega-state and winning praise for doing so.
Sheekey cited to me the statistics of voter registrations in California, where "decline-to-state" independents are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
It was evident that he was closely monitoring political developments far from New York City, and that his tongue was hanging out in eagerness to test his own political prowess in a national race.
It now looks more and more as if he will have a chance. In what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated series of events, Bloomberg dominated the political news last week.
First, he turned up on the cover of Time magazine along with Schwarzenegger. A flattering article suggested that they embodied the pragmatic, problem-solving approach that Washington conspicuously lacks in these final dispiriting months of the Bush presidency.
Then Bloomberg joined Schwarzenegger for appearances in California at which they lashed the failure of the two parties in Washington to meet the nation's needs.
Bloomberg said, "We continue to struggle from big problem to big problem with Band-Aids ... and nobody is really ready to stand up and make the tough decisions." Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible to run for president because he is not a natural born citizen, told reporters that Bloomberg would make those tough calls if he were in the White House.
And then Bloomberg announced that he has changed his own registration from Republican to independent.
Bloomberg still insists that he has no plans to run for president, unless everyone else in America declines. But in almost every respect, the political environment for such a candidacy has improved in recent months.
True, a surfeit of New Yorkers already crowd the contest. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, leads the Democratic field, and Rudolph Giuliani, Bloomberg's predecessor as mayor, sits atop the Republican polls. Bloomberg, a Democrat for most of his life, has been friendly with the Clintons in New York, and Giuliani gave Bloomberg a vital endorsement when he switched to the GOP in 2001 to run for mayor.
Early polls show Bloomberg would start out well behind Clinton and Giuliani in a three-way race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for Bloomberg in the picture. Polls consistently show large numbers of Americans - close to a majority - are unwilling to consider Mrs. Clinton for president, and Giuliani is painful medicine for many Republicans to swallow.
More than that, there is a palpable hunger in the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country - the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care - and not worry about the politics.
Can Bloomberg satisfy that hunger? He has joked that "they're never going to vote for a 5-foot-6-inch Jewish guy from New York," who supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. But if he runs, he is not just a nuisance or distraction. Unlike Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, the last three significant independents to run, and who had not spent a day in elective office, Bloomberg has solid governing experience and a commendable record of innovation and accomplishment in New York.
He has the personal wealth to finance a campaign and people on his staff eager to run one. If he decides to go, he would add to the mix - not distort or diminish it.
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