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Analysis: As Bloomberg mulls over a third-party bid, advantages and problems loom

    WASHINGTON — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to leave the Republicans six years after he stopped being a Democrat makes him a man without a party.
    If the billionaire businessman decides to make an independent run for the presidency, he’ll face legal, financial and organizational hurdles.
    The nation has a long history of failed third-party candidacies. Getting on the ballot in all 50 states is torturous. Participation in televised debates requires a high threshold of support. And getting out the vote is challenging without the help of major-party organizations and their armies of volunteers.
    The last independent candidate to gain significant support, Ross Perot, drew considerable national attention in 1992 and 1996 but failed to pick up a single electoral vote — even though in 1992, his best-performing year, he spent $29 million and wound up with 19 percent of the popular vote.
    Bloomberg’s announcement Tuesday that he was giving up his Republican affiliation during a campaign-like West Coast tour is fueling speculation that he will enter the 2008 race as an independent, even though he says he has no present plans to do so.
    Despite the poor track record for third-party candidates, the 65-year-old mayor might have the best shot of any recent independent candidate, even better than Perot’s, ‘‘because he wouldn’t be running against an incumbent president,’’ said Pat Choate, who was the Texas businessman’s 1996 running mate.
    Perot ran against the first President Bush in 1992 and against President Clinton in 1996.
    Presidents can always count on a certain percentage of the vote just because of hard-core supporters and the aura they carry as sitting presidents, even if their approval ratings are low, said Choate, a political economist and author.
    Furthermore, ‘‘You have real disillusionment with both political parties,’’ Choate said. ‘‘Bloomberg might just do it.’’
    This will be the first wide-open election — with neither a president nor an incumbent vice president in the race — in more than half a century.
    It is also a time when disenchanted Republicans are showing a lack of enthusiasm for the current candidates. Some Republicans want Fred Thompson, the actor-politician from Tennessee; others are pressing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
    Democrats are generally content with their choices, though a few would like former Vice President Al Gore to run.
    Polls also show low approval ratings for the president as well as Congress, and dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.
    Bloomberg appears poised to tap into this malaise. In his California appearances, the mayor criticized both parties and their presidential candidates for pandering and timidity. ‘‘The big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy,’’ he said Monday at the University of Southern California.
    A recent nationwide survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that, while the New York mayor is relatively well-known, his appeal is very modest. While almost two-thirds of American voters know who Bloomberg is, only 9 percent of those who have heard of him said there’s a good chance they’d vote for him. Another 23 percent said there was some chance, but more than half of American voters said there’s no chance Bloomberg would get their vote.
    Bloomberg doesn’t have nearly the national reputation of Republican Rudy Giuliani, his mayoral predecessor, said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University. Nor does he have ‘‘the kind of messianic quirkiness that Perot had. So I don’t know what’s in it for him other than reducing the size of his estate by financing a national campaign.’’
    Like Perot, Bloomberg is a billionaire, with an estimated worth of more than $5 billion, and could easily self-finance his own campaign. By some accounts, Bloomberg sees such a race as costing him a potential $500 million or more.
    Bloomberg also is making some of the same appeals to political independents, restive Democrats and moderate Republicans that Perot made when he nagged the country to balance its budget and railed against ‘‘the arrogance of public officials.’’
    ‘‘The American people are sick and tired that this nation’s problems never get solved. They want bold leadership, new ideas, real change — that’s what Bloomberg knows. He smells this frustration,’’ said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any presidential candidate.
    And while he may not be that bold a leader, ‘‘with $500 million to spend’’ he can be a formidable contender, Kofinis said.
    In 2001, Bloomberg switched from being a lifelong Democrat to a Republican to avoid a crowded mayoral primary in the heavily Democratic city. His political heritage suggests his candidacy could hurt Democrats more than Republicans — just as independent Ralph Nader’s 2000 race appeared to take votes from Democrat Al Gore.
    By contrast, Perot’s race in 1992 appeared to take votes from the elder Bush.
    President Bush has stayed mum about the Republicans seeking his job. But spokesman Tony Snow couldn’t resist a jab at Bloomberg’s party switch: ‘‘Let me put it this way: He ran as a Republican; I believe he took Republican money.’’
    In fact, Bloomberg never accepted any campaign contributions. He spent more than $155 million for his two mayoral campaigns, including $85 million when he won his second term in 2005.
    Meanwhile, the mayor has been making candidate-like movements, including a trip to New Hampshire last weekend. And he’s done little to deflect the presidential speculation now swirling around him.
    ‘‘The more people that run for office, the better,’’ he said Wednesday.
    ———
    EDITOR’S NOTE — Tom Raum has covered national affairs for The Associated Press since 1973, including Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign.

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