Buoyed by the still unsettled field, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is growing increasingly enchanted with the idea of launching an independent presidential bid, and his aides are aggressively laying the groundwork for him to run.
On Sunday, the mayor will join Democratic and Republican elder statesmen at the University of Oklahoma in what the conveners are billing as an effort to pressure the major party candidates to renounce partisan gridlock.
Former Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma, who organized the session with former Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat of Georgia, suggested in an interview that if the prospective major party nominees failed within two months to formally embrace bipartisanship and address the fundamental challenges facing the nation, “I would be among those who would urge Mr. Bloomberg to very seriously consider running for president as an independent.”
Next week’s meeting, reported on Sunday in The Washington Post, comes as the mayor’s advisers have been quietly canvassing potential campaign consultants about their availability in the coming months.
And Mr. Bloomberg himself has become more candid in conversations with friends and associates about his interest in running, according to participants in those conversations. Despite public denials, the mayor has privately suggested several scenarios in which he might be a viable candidate: for instance, if the opposing major party candidates are poles apart, like Mike Huckabee, a Republican, versus Barack Obama or John Edwards as the Democratic nominee.
A final decision by Mr. Bloomberg about whether to run is unlikely before February. Still, he and his closest advisers are positioning themselves so that if the mayor declares his candidacy, a turnkey campaign infrastructure will virtually be in place.
Bloomberg aides have studied the process for launching independent campaigns, which formally begins March 5, when third-party candidates can begin circulating nominating petitions in Texas. If Democrats and Republicans have settled on their presumptive nominees at that point, Mr. Bloomberg will have to decide whether he believes those candidates are vulnerable to a challenge from a pragmatic, progressive centrist, which is how he would promote himself.
The filing deadline for the petitions, which must be signed by approximately 74,000 Texas voters who did not participate in the state’s Democratic or Republican primaries, is May 12.
Among the other participants invited to the session next Sunday and Monday is Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, who has said he would consider being Mr. Bloomberg’s running mate on an independent ticket.
Mr. Boren declined to say which independent candidate would be strongest, but suggested “some kind of combination of those three: Bloomberg-Hagel, Bloomberg-Nunn.” He said Mr. Bloomberg would “not have to spend a lot of time raising money and he would not have to make deals with special interest groups to raise money.”
“Normally I don’t think an independent candidacy would have a chance” said Mr. Boren, who is the University of Oklahoma’s president. “I don’t think these are normal times.”
Mr. Bloomberg, who has tried to seize a national platform on gun control, the environment and other issues, has been regularly briefed in recent months on foreign policy by, among others, Henry A. Kissinger, his friend and the former secretary of state, and Nancy Soderberg, an ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
Advisers have said Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire many times over, might invest as much as $1 billion of his own fortune (he spent about $160 million on his two mayoral races) on a presidential campaign.
But they warned that while they were confident of getting on the ballot in every state, the process was complicated and fraught with legal challenges, and that Mr. Bloomberg would begin with an organizational disadvantage, competing against rivals who have been campaigning full time for years.
Still, the mayor said this month at a news conference, “Last I looked — and I’m not a candidate — but last time I checked reading about the Constitution, the Electoral College has nothing to do with parties, has absolutely nothing to do with parties. It’s most states are winners take all. The popular vote assigns electoral votes to the candidate, and I don’t think it says in there that you have to be a member of one party or another.”
‘A rich Ralph Nader’
The key players — virtually the only players — in Mr. Bloomberg’s embryonic campaign are three of his deputy mayors, Kevin Sheekey, Edward Skyler and Patricia E. Harris. Another aide, Patrick Brennan, who was the political director of Mr. Bloomberg’s 2005 re-election campaign, resigned as commissioner of the city’s Community Assistance Unit earlier this year to spend more time exploring the mayor’s possible national campaign.
One concern among Mr. Bloomberg’s inner circle is whether a loss would label him a spoiler — “a rich Ralph Nader” — who cost a more viable candidate the presidency in a watershed political year. One person close to the mayor, who requested anonymity so as not to be seen discussing internal strategy, stressed that Mr. Bloomberg would run only if he believed he could win.
“He’s not going to do it to influence the debate,” the person said.
The mayor was asked last week at a news conference whether a Bloomberg campaign would cost the Democratic or Republican nominee more votes.
“You know,” he replied, “if it’s a three-way race, the public has more choice than if it’s a two-way race, and has more choice in a two-way race than a one-way race. Why shouldn’t you have lots of people running, and what’s magical about people who happen to be a member of a party?” Sam Waterston, the actor whose former co-star on “Law and Order,” Fred D. Thompson, is a Republican presidential candidate, is a founder of Unity08. That organization also hopes to advance a nonpartisan national ticket, and Mr. Waterston says the mayor is often mentioned on the group’s Web site as a prospective nominee.
“If he formally embraced Unity08’s principal goals of a bipartisan, nonpartisan, postpartisan ticket — which he’s almost in a position to do all by himself, having been a Democrat, a Republican, and now an independent — and of an administration dedicated to ending partisanship within itself and in Washington, then it’s hard to think of anyone better placed to win Unity08’s support if he sought it,” Mr. Waterston said. “And, of course, there’s nothing that says Unity08 couldn’t draft him.”
Some associates said that after six years as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg was itching for a new challenge — much like he was in 2000 when, as chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., he was flirting with the possibility of running for mayor.
But Mr. Bloomberg will also have to weigh several intangibles: Can he run for president and serve as mayor of a combustible metropolis simultaneously for eight months? (He believes he can, and would not resign as mayor to run.) Does he want to be president badly enough to sacrifice his zealously guarded personal privacy? (He’s not completely convinced.) Meanwhile, he thoroughly enjoys the attention, and despite the public denials, suggests that he is poised to run if the political stars align themselves for a long-shot, but credible, independent campaign. During a private reception this month, Mr. Bloomberg playfully presided over a personal variation of bingo, in which guests could win by correctly guessing the significance of the numbers on a printed card.
“Two hundred seventy-one?” Mr. Bloomberg asked.
One guest guessed correctly: It was George W. Bush’s bare electoral-vote majority in 2000.
Diane Cardwell and Raymond Hernandez contributed reporting.