Bloomberg, Others Urge Bipartisanship

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg speaks during a bipartisan forum of mostly former politicians at the University of Oklahoma.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg speaks during a bipartisan forum of mostly former politicians at the University of Oklahoma. (By A. Cuervo -- Bloomberg News)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

NORMAN, Okla., Jan. 7 -- New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, declaring once again that he is "not a candidate" for the presidency, joined a bipartisan forum Monday of mostly former elected officials seeking new ways to solve Washington's partisan gridlock.

The conference, organized by former Democratic senator David L. Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma, was intended to send a signal to those who are running for president that the nation is yearning for a return to bipartisanship.

But while much of the focus here was on Bloomberg -- who was trailed by a large New York media contingent -- some of the spotlight had shifted to New Hampshire, where Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was poised to build on his win in the Iowa caucuses by making the very same appeal for unity to Democrats, Republicans and independents.

"This meeting was scheduled prior to the Iowa caucuses," Boren noted. Without naming Obama, he added that "I do think we see some emerging signs" of bipartisan appeals in the presidential race.

"I hope you're right," Bloomberg said, when asked if the meeting had become superfluous given the results from Iowa. "I hope all of the candidates say the public is tired of the partisanship and the special interests."

The group included, among others, several former senators known for their willingness to work across party lines when in Washington -- Democrats Bob Graham of Florida, Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Gary Hart of Colorado and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republicans Bill Brock of Tennessee, William S. Cohen of Maine and John C. Danforth of Missouri.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Bloomberg on an independent ticket, was the only sitting senator to attend.

After several hours of discussion Sunday night and early Monday, the group came out with a "joint statement of principles," urging all the presidential contenders in both parties to outline plans to establish a government of national unity, appoint a bipartisan Cabinet of experts and reach across party lines to form policy groups in critical areas such as national security.

"Rampant partisanship has polarized the ability of government to act," said Nunn, reading from the group's joint statement. "If we unify, we can turn America's peril into America's promise."

Asked whether the presidential candidates would be open to the bipartisan appeals of the panel in the heat of the primary season, Bloomberg said, "I think all the members of the panel are optimistic that the candidates will listen to us."

Bloomberg's oft-denied presidential ambitions would seem to be complicated by Obama's rise in the polls and the strength of the Illinois senator's "post-partisan" message. After convincingly winning Iowa's caucuses last week, Obama said, "The time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington" and promised to build a new "working coalition for change."

Precisely, in other words, the appeal that a candidate Bloomberg would make.

While he has consistently denied any interest in joining the presidential field, Bloomberg has lately been raising his profile on the national -- and international -- level, speaking out on issues reaching far beyond New York and acting more and more like a candidate.

After bolting the Republican Party to become an independent in June, Bloomberg traveled to both China and a climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December. He led a coalition of mayors demanding stricter controls on handguns. Last week, he appeared on NBC's "Today" show, and CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman," and has a cameo appearance planned for Jan. 10 on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Bloomberg also took time out from a routine news conference on teenage smoking to criticize the entire presidential field for not offering solutions to the country's biggest problems.

Bloomberg, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $11 billion and the ability to self-finance a national campaign, has the potential to become a formidable candidate. Because of term limits, he must leave his post when his second term ends next year, but a decision on a presidential bid would have to be made quickly because of complicated ballot-access considerations for third-party or independent candidates. The first deadline, in Texas, falls on May 12, and he must submit some 74,000 signatures to be assured a place on the state's ballot but can only begin collecting signatures March 5.

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