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A billionaire mayor in the fray

SO CAMPAIGN 2008 may feature not just one candidate who earned his chops as mayor of New York City, but two - and not just two New Yorkers, but three. Gotham's current CEO, Democrat-turned-Republican Michael Bloomberg, has changed his political identity again, becoming an unaffiliated voter as he explores a presidential candidacy, an ambition he's denying in only the most cursory of ways.

On paper, anyway, Bloomberg, who landed on the cover of Time as a new breed of leader and high in the headlines on Wednesday with his Republican renunciation, looks like an attractive candidate.

And this week, he was talking like a man ready to tackle big challenges, saying that this country continues ''to struggle from big problem to big problem with Band-Aids and the bleeding continues and nobody is really ready to stand up and make the tough decisions.''

Bloomberg boasts two stellar biographical credentials: He's been an astounding private-sector success, and he's got persuasive public-sector-executive experience, having proved an imaginative, intelligent mayor of famously fractious New York City.

By any measure, he has to rank as one of the best city CEOs in America, one willing to take risks and attempt big things, a mayor who sees political capital as something to be spent in the pursuit of real change on such things as climate change, illegal guns, education reform, smoking, and noise control.

His pragmatic, independent aura could make him attractive to centrists, particularly if primary politics pulls the Democrats leftward and the Republicans to starboard, says Angus King, who won two terms as governor of Maine as an independent. King is now part of Unity08, an Internet-based effort to nominate a bipartisan ticket in 2008.

''If the parties move to their respective bases, which is what seems to be happening in the debates so far, then I think there is going to be a very wide road down the middle,'' King said. ''I also think that he has demonstrated something that I believe is a hidden issue in this campaign: the ability to run a large, complex organization, which he has done both in business and as mayor of New York City, which is probably the second-hardest job in the country behind the presidency.''

As a billionaire, Bloomberg could finance his own campaign, meaning he could start late and do things his own way.

As we saw in 1992, under the right conditions, there is a real receptivity to an independent candidacy. Back then, billionaire populist Ross Perot actually led the presidential race during the spring, before dropping out under circumstances that made one wonder about the odd notions circulating between those ears of his.

Even then, after reentering the race, he managed to get 19 percent of the popular vote.

Now for Bloomberg's problems: In an arena where personality matters, the former president of the Medford High School Slide Rule Club can come off as a stiff and nerdy, not as a large, warm personality who is easy to relate to.

Right now, certainly, he is exciting only moderate interest.

Indeed, an early June poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that though 65 percent of registered voters have heard of Bloomberg, only 9 percent said there was a good chance they would vote for him, with another 23 percent saying there is some chance. Those aren't awful numbers, to be sure, but they put him well down in the pack, about tied with Republican Hamlet Newt Gingrich.

Further, the current campaign doesn't have 1992's deep disaffection with the other choices - at least, not yet.

''Where there is a great desire for change, there is a greater opportunity for an independent,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the center. ''But for that to happen, the Democratic and Republican centrists would have to get unhappy with their choices.''

Yes, there is political discontent, but at this point, most of it lies with Republican conservatives, who are searching for someone they see as ideologically simpatico. As a supporter of abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control, Bloomberg wouldn't find a welcoming constituency there. Democrats, meanwhile, appear reasonably content with their crop of candidates.

All that could change, of course. If the nominations are really decided by early February, as may well be the case with 2008's impossibly front-loaded primary calendar, there will be plenty of time for buyer's remorse to set in.

''Enterprising reporters with nothing to do for five months will find everything the candidates don't want found,'' predicts Garrison Nelson, professor of political science at the University of Vermont. That dynamic could make Bloomberg an attractive alternative, Nelson thinks.

Still, to find traction, Bloomberg would have to highlight compelling issues the others aren't addressing.

''He has to turn his candidacy into a cause the way George Wallace did and the way Ross Perot did,'' said Ralph Whitehead, professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

So what is Bloomberg's cause?

That's the question the mayor will have to answer if and when he decides to take the presidential plunge.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is