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BLOOMBERG'S DECISION

McCain's Success May Be Upsetting N.Y. Mayor's Plans

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, continues to deny that he plans to join the race for the White House.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, continues to deny that he plans to join the race for the White House. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

NEW YORK -- When the polls close on Tuesday, few will be analyzing the results more closely than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose own thinly disguised presidential ambitions are likely to hinge on the outcome.

Since his reelection in 2005, Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, has been flirting with a White House run, while publicly denying any such intentions. He has spent millions of dollars on nationwide polling. He left the Republican Party and became an independent. He has traveled widely across the United States and overseas. He has begun speaking out about national issues. Last month, he met with a ballot access expert in Texas.

One current and one former aide compared it to the typical research a businessman does before making a major decision -- collect data, study contingencies and keep options open. They both said Bloomberg has not made up his mind about a run.

But all the research, the positioning and the careful planning seem to have been upended last week by events on the campaign trail that few predicted a few months ago. Sen. John McCain, written off over the summer as an also-ran, won the Florida primary and became the clear Republican front-runner.

Veterans of past Bloomberg campaigns said McCain's unexpected ascendancy -- and the likelihood that the senator from Arizona could emerge from Tuesday's voting as the presumptive GOP nominee -- may have severely complicated Bloomberg's plans. McCain appeals to some moderate Democrats and, more important, to independents -- precisely the group Bloomberg would be targeting.

McCain also has a reputation in Washington for working with Democrats on issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform, somewhat undercutting Bloomberg's main argument for running: that he would offer a pragmatic, post-partisan kind of leadership.

On Thursday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who has formed working coalitions with Democrats in recent years, endorsed McCain. It was during a June visit to see Schwarzenegger in California that Bloomberg dropped his Republican Party affiliation. At the time, Schwarzenegger said Bloomberg "would be a great candidate," and the two, who have forged a close relationship, have been mentioned as possible running mates.

"I kind of sense that there are some in the Bloomberg for President camp who thought the balloon lost a little air . . . with Schwarzenegger's endorsement of McCain," said Jonathan Greenspun, who worked in Bloomberg's administration for 4 1/2 years and now is with a public affairs firm in New York.

"Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg had been interconnected in this independent-candidacy rationale," Greenspun said. "Now that McCain is the presumptive nominee, some think that removes the Bloomberg rationale."

Fred Siegel, contributing editor of the City Journal and a professor at the Cooper Union college, offered much the same analysis. "McCain appeals to the independents that Bloomberg would have to appeal to," he said.

"Does he desperately want to run? Yes. But I'm skeptical," Siegel said. "He has to find an opening. What he lacks now is a rationale."

Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster and strategist who did polling for Bloomberg's two mayoral campaigns, disagreed. "I think it's too early to say," said Schoen, whose new book, "Declaring Independence," is about major voting trends that could pave the way for an independent candidacy.

Schoen said it is too soon to determine whether McCain and the Democratic nominee would be able to unite their parties, or whether large blocs of voters would remain alienated. McCain, he said, is already attracting the ire of the Republican Party's right wing.

There is less of a consensus on how the outcome of the Democratic race will affect Bloomberg's decision. Some said he would be less likely to run if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton became the nominee, because they are both New Yorkers. With Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the problem is that the senator has exactly the kind of post-partisan appeal that Bloomberg would make central to his campaign, and Obama, in the primaries so far, also has been backed by independent voters.

Those who still envision Bloomberg running said he is now looking to March 5, the day that Texas will begin allowing independent candidates to start collecting the signatures necessary to get on the state's presidential ballot. Between now and then, some analysts and others said, Bloomberg will be watching to see whether the two parties begin to coalesce around their presumptive nominees or whether lingering rancor from the primary battles leaves an opening for him.

But many are skeptical. "If it's McCain as the Republican nominee, and a historic choice on the Democratic side, I'm not sure what [Bloomberg] would offer," said Rhodes Cook, a political analyst who publishes a newsletter on politics. "He would need a burning issue -- and nothing seems to be burning."

Bloomberg continues to deny that he plans to run. But Thursday, the day Schwarzenegger endorsed McCain, the mayor offered a slightly different formulation that raised eyebrows in the political world.

"I've said repeatedly I'm not a candidate," he told reporters, and then added, cryptically, "And I'll stay that way."


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