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Odds bleak for third-party candidates

Bloomberg steps back from challenge

WASHINGTON -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday that he is not a candidate for president next year, stepping back -- for now -- from a challenge that even popular third-party candidates have found impossible to overcome against the immense power of the two dominant political parties.

Bloomberg, a former Democrat turned moderate Republican now in his second term, has many of the attributes that make for an attractive presidential hopeful: billions of dollars in personal wealth, support from voters in both parties, and a record as a successful businessman and big-city mayor.

Those advantages, combined with Bloomberg's announcement Tuesday that he was abandoning the GOP for independent political status, have kept speculation alive that Bloomberg may change his mind and run.

But with American politics so heavily invested in the two-party system, as an independent candidate Bloomberg could at best be a spoiler, campaign specialists say.

"My own view is that if Teddy Roosevelt couldn't do it, it can't be done," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a nonpartisan centrist group, referring to Roosevelt's unsuccessful 1912 Bull Moose Party campaign.

"It's probably impossible, even with a billion dollars."

While some third-party candidates have made successful runs for lower-level office, "every lever of power in the federal system is managed by the [two] parties," Bennett said.

"It is just incomprehensible that we could ever have a real breakdown in the party system" that would give an outsider a genuine chance of becoming president, he said.

Bloomberg, the 65-year-old founder of Bloomberg LP, a news and financial data wire service, has long been considered a possible independent or third-party candidate for president, and his public departure from the GOP on Tuesday fueled speculation that he was readying himself for a White House run. But the mayor said yesterday that pollsters assessing his impact on the crowded presidential field "are wasting their time. I am not a candidate," he added. "I have said that my intention is to be mayor for the next 925 days," and then devote his time to philanthropic work, he said.

However, Bloomberg did say "the more people that run for office, the better," and added that he intends to make his voice heard on national issues such as immigration and Iran.

"The big issues keep being pushed to the back . . . I'm going to speak out on those issues. By not being affiliated with a party, I think I will have a better opportunity to do that," he said.

For presidential candidates, no has not meant never. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York told Barbara Walters in 2003, "I don't have any intention or plans for running" for president, while Senator John McCain of Arizona told the Washington Post in 2001 he had no intention of running for president again after the 2000 election. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois repeatedly shot down suggestions of a presidential run when he arrived in Congress in 2005.

An independent Bloomberg candidacy would be able to counter some of the disadvantages that hampered previous independents. Unlike the current crop of candidates, the multi billionaire Bloomberg would not have to begin raising massive amounts of money. And while soliciting donations can help a candidate build a base of voter support and volunteers, Bloomberg could dedicate more of his time to collecting votes, and not dollars, campaign finance experts said.

"If you're relieved of the need to raise the equivalent of five $2,300 contributions every hour of every day of every week of the year, including weekends and holidays . . . can you somehow find other ways of developing networks of volunteers? I think so," said Michael Malbin , executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute.

Jackie Salit , who negotiated Bloomberg's endorsement by the Independence Party of New York for both of his mayoral campaigns, said Bloomberg could draw support from the escalating number of independent voters across the country, but he would need to prove a genuine commitment to nonpartisanship and that he wasn't opting to become an independent just to advance his personal profile in politics.

Historically, however, third-party candidates have found it virtually impossible to conquer the political behemoths of the Republican and Democratic party structures.

Andrew Smith , director of the UNH Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire , noted that both parties have long histories and intricate layers of organization at the local, state, and national level, and both are practiced at electoral politics.

"Parties don't exist to promote ideologies. They don't exist to promote policies. They exist to get people elected," Smith said.

Further, both parties have become adept at adopting a key issue of the day such as civil rights, making it part of the party identity and attracting party membership. The Republican Party's anti slavery stance, for example, helped identify the party in the 19th century, and later the Democrats seized civil rights as an issue and built support, especially among African-Americans, in the 20th century, Smith said.

Recent history is littered with the political corpses of candidates seeking to upset one of the two major party candidates, including John B. Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center suggested that just 9 percent of voters who had heard of Bloomberg said there was a "good chance" they would vote for him. Other surveys indicate that Bloomberg would boost Clinton's chances against former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani in a hypothetical three-way election in some states, including New York.

If Bloomberg did run next year, many Republicans believe he would siphon off votes from the Democratic nominee because he has an appeal to moderate Democrats.

"Bloomberg could be to the Democratic Party in 2008 what Perot was to the Republicans in 1992," said Greg Mueller, a GOP consultant who was a senior adviser to GOP presidential contenders Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan .