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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Washington diary: Bloomberg's gamble
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

New York City is frequently derided as being too eccentric, sophisticated and "European" to belong to the real America.

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg has billions of dollars and is willing to spend them

When it comes to elections, it has always been the stage for lavish fundraisers, mined for cash by both sides, but largely ignored as a source of coveted votes because New York tends to vote Democrat and hasn't swung - in electoral terms - for decades.

So wouldn't it be funny if the three names on the presidential ballot in 2008 all hailed from the Empire State?

Did I say three?

Here's the imaginary list: Hillary Clinton, the junior senator from New York in the Democratic corner; Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, in the Republican corner; and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg somewhere in the middle, hovering as an independent candidate, an antibody in Washington party politics, stealing disaffected voters from both parties.

The rumour has been tickling Washington's political gonads for months now.

It goes without saying that the mayor himself continues to deny any intentions to run for the White House, which is bread-and-butter Beltway rhetoric.

But the blogosphere went into high gear this week after Mr Bloomberg took it upon himself to announce that he was quitting the Republican Party with the stinging rebuke that "every successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles".

Rudy Giuliani should be far more worried by a Bloomberg candidacy than Hillary Clinton

This may be less of a slap in the face than it appears, since he only joined the Republican ranks in 2001 when he wanted to become mayor of New York. But why announce the divorce at all?

Moreover Mr Bloomberg was speaking not on his home turf but in that other bastion of coastal sophistication, California, on what looked suspiciously like a campaign tour.

The mayor himself may be denying presidential ambitions but his friend, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has given him the thumbs up.

"He would make an excellent candidate for the White House!" Arnie yodelled and then smiled like a split watermelon.

Midas touch

Mr Bloomberg's own entourage has been feeding the cyber beasts with quotes about a candidacy, quashing previous rumours that the mayor may want to run as a vice-presidential candidate.

"He's an alpha male," his friend and adviser Professor Mitchell Moss recently told reporters.

The 5ft 7in (1.70m) alpha male, who comes from a family of Polish Jews and was the son of a book-keeper, certainly has a lot going for him.

He has been elected twice as mayor of New York and his Midas touch, first as a partner at Salomon Bros, the investment bank, and then as the founder of the Bloomberg financial news and data service has pocketed him, according to Forbes Magazine, no less than $5.5 billion (2.75bn).

He has the cash and, as his campaigns in New York have shown, he is ready to spend it. He laid out $73m (36.6m) to win City Hall in 2001 and another $80m (40m) to do so again in 2005.

As an independent candidate, he won't need to run in the party primaries and so he can lavish a whopping half a billion dollars on the presidential campaign at the very least, without spending more than 10% of his money.

Echoes of Perot

At worst, that's a handy tax write-off. And that brings to mind another short candidate who disliked the Bush family and ran as a loner.

Ross Perot
Ross Perot split the Republican vote and cost George HW Bush dear

Do you remember Ross Perot? He was the independent candidate who ran in 1992 with a face like an extra-terrestrial and a voice like a duck.

He hardly spent any of his own money and had no message beyond his loathing for Beltway politics.

But even he managed to get 19% of the vote in the presidential ballot.

Since most of his support defected from the Republican camp, he split the right and thus cost George HW Bush the election.

So imagine what Mr Bloomberg could do. Thanks to the war in Iraq and a corroded faith in the ability of politics to fix America's ills, the country is far more disaffected now than it was in 1992.

The mood is ripe for an independent. Mr Bloomberg has more money than Mr Perot and, crucially, is willing to spend it.

Michael Bloomberg on the New York subway
Michael Bloomberg even rides the New York subway to work

He has managed the world's grittiest and whiniest city for more than five years and still enjoys a 70% approval rating.

And he has a message: Mr Bloomberg was against the war in Iraq and he is for gay rights, gun control and abortion.

He is where many moderate Republicans, Democrats and undecided voters are. He is in that place where that other mayor, Rudy Giuliani, would probably like to be if he didn't have to undergo the contortions foisted upon him by the Republican primaries.

And Michael Bloomberg, the Master of the Universe, takes the subway to work.

Political Viagra

At this stage you might be tempted to change the monograms on the White House face towels already. But not so fast!

Bloomberg has money and brains but as a campaigner he's the driest biscuit in the box.

His electoral chemistry is well nigh inert and he would have to make a virtue of his dour style.

But as my friend, the pollster Frank Luntz, has pointed out: "With this much money in your pocket it doesn't matter if you're dry, what matters is the calculation: can I win?"

This is where it gets tricky. The bedrock party support for the Democrats is estimated to be around 39% of likely voters.

These are the people who would vote Democrat even if a potted plant were on the ballot paper.

These days the Republicans can count on only about 30% of cast-iron loyalty.

According to Mr Luntz this has two consequences: the first is that Mr Bloomberg is unlikely to win, even with all his cash, appeal and the current degree of disaffection.

Secondly, he is far more likely to steal Republican voters at a time when the Grand Old Party desperately needs independent voters to get into the White House. Rudy Giuliani should be far more worried by a Bloomberg candidacy than Hillary Clinton.

But if he thinks he can't win, why should Mr Bloomberg, a results-driven executive, even bother to run?

Because even if he never got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he wouldn't exactly be missing any meals and he might just make the history books.

If that's not political Viagra for a 65-year-old, unmarried, 5ft 7in, alpha-male billionaire, then what is?


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