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Bloomberg quits GOP, stirs buzz

Move heightens speculation on White House run

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York officially left the Republican Party yesterday and changed his voter registration to "unaffiliated," further stoking speculation that he will enter the already crowded 2008 presidential race as an independent.

Bloomberg, a longtime Democrat who switched to the GOP to run for mayor in 2001, insisted the move had nothing to do with preparing for a presidential campaign. But his sudden announcement, together with his recent travels and criticism of partisan politics in Washington, will only fuel theories that he has his eye on the White House.

"Although my plans for the future haven't changed, I believe this brings my affiliation into alignment with how I have led and will continue to lead our city," Bloomberg, 65, said in a statement. "As a political independent, I will continue to work with those in all political parties to find common ground, to put partisanship aside, and to achieve real solutions to the challenges we face."

Were he to jump into the 2008 race, Bloomberg, a billionaire who was raised in Medford, would instantly shake up the field. His positions on social issues -- he supports abortion rights and gun control -- made him a Republican anomaly. But political analysts say he could appeal to a wide swath of the country as an independent, running as a centrist not beholden to either political party.

"I think this is about being able to put together an independent campaign if and when he decided" to run, said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Now, do I think this means he's absolutely, positively running? No. But this is a kind of a step to position himself to make a serious decision about whether or not to go all out."

Rothenberg notes that though Bloomberg would still have to get on ballots in states across the country, he wouldn't have to follow the rules of traditional campaigning and does not have to immediately organize a campaign. "He has the luxury to wait," Rothenberg said.

Bloomberg's extraordinary wealth, estimated at $5 billion, frees him from having to spend months raising money, and running as an independent would mean that he could skip the primaries entirely since his name would only appear on the November ballot.

Bloomberg, whose second mayoral term doesn't end until 2009, has long been coy about whether he harbors presidential aspirations, repeatedly saying he is not planning on running. NBC's Brian Williams asked him last week, "Honest answer: Would you make a good president?"

"Oh, I don't -- I've got a job. I just want to be a good mayor," Bloomberg said, adding, "I don't ever look in the mirror and think about, 'Would I be a good president?' "

But then Bloomberg went on to discuss America's reputation overseas, problems with Social Security and healthcare, and the partisan gridlock that he says has gripped the nation's capital. He has made similar remarks in his increasingly frequent out-of-state trips.

In fact, Bloomberg made his announcement about switching parties while in California for political events. He appears on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine with another socially liberal Republican willing to buck his party -- California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- for a story titled "Who needs Washington?"

"The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, primarily at the federal level, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy," Bloomberg said in a speech Monday kicking off a conference at the University of Southern California on nonpartisan governing, according to the Associated Press.

Indeed, Bloomberg's views and his actions as New York mayor hardly make him a poster boy for the Republican Party: He supports gay marriage, believes in strict gun control, and pushed through a plan to boost property taxes after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks plunged the city into financial distress.

His most recent initiative was an ambitious environmental plan for New York that calls for charging drivers a fee to enter the most congested parts of Manhattan and replacing the city's fleet of yellow cabs with hybrid vehicles. He also pushed through a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

But Bloomberg has sent mixed signals about his views of partisanship. Just last year, the AP reported, he said to Republicans in Manhattan, "I couldn't be prouder to run on the Republican ticket and be a Republican."

Bloomberg's entry into the presidential race would make him the second New York mayor in a row to launch a bid for the White House, after his predecessor at Gracie Mansion, Rudy Giuliani. He would also be the third New Yorker in the race, along with Giuliani and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Rothenberg said that serious independent presidential candidacies tend to come in cycles, and that the United States is due for another one.

The last serious independent contender was Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who garnered 19 percent of the vote in 1992.

"If Bloomberg runs for president, it will be as significant or more significant than when Ross Perot ran," said Jon Fleischman, a vice chairman of the California Republican Party who publishes a website on California politics. Fleischman said it was too early to know, however, whether a Bloomberg campaign would hurt a Republican or Democrat more.

"The question is whether voters are so disappointed with the parties and so sick of Washington that they will turn to an independent," Rothenberg said.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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