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Calls grow for Bloomberg to make up his mind

Michael Bloomberg’s dalliance with the idea of running for president is suddenly sparking a backlash.
/ Source: The New York Times

Nearly every day a tiny new development trickles out from the stealth presidential campaign of , the billionaire mayor of New York.

He has talked with and , potential running mates. He has delivered a tart critique of the presidential field. He is conducting intricate polling to test his appeal in all 50 states.

Mr. Bloomberg’s dalliance with the idea of running for president has stretched on and on, with his enthusiastic approval despite the public denials. But even before actually entering the contest, Mr. Bloomberg may have already risked losing something: people’s patience.

The political parlor game — Will he run? When will he decide? How much could he spend? — that has so delighted Mr. Bloomberg is suddenly sparking a backlash. Editorial pages from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Post, The Village Voice and The New Yorker have taken him to task. Members of the administration have been rolling their eyes and referring to Kevin Sheekey, Mr. Bloomberg’s political architect, as the deputy mayor for presidential politics.

And a recent poll conducted by found that 61 percent of New Yorkers thought Mr. Bloomberg had a “moral obligation” to serve out his full term. The survey, of 1,162 New York City voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, also found that while 16 percent wanted to see him run for president rather than for governor, 32 percent did not want him to run for either office.

“People might be saying, ‘C’mon, do your job,’ ” said Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac. “Maybe people are thinking, ‘Look, it’s such a long shot; why don’t you think about what to do about traffic congestion in Bay Ridge?’ ”

Others offered a blunter assessment.

“It’s a very long prelude, and I think it is becoming a very old story very fast,” said Robert Zimmerman, a communications specialist who is one of Senator ’s fund-raisers. “Mike Bloomberg has failed to make a case that he represents an independent movement, as opposed to a former Democratic liberal, former Republican, former Bush-backer running a campaign of opportunism.”

'The aloof critic role'
To be sure, there is little indication that ordinary voters around the country have given much thought to a Bloomberg candidacy, especially given the dramatic primary races in the two major parties. But his enormous wealth and willingness to spend it make him someone who cannot be ignored within the political world.

At this point, the fatigue with Mr. Bloomberg’s national ambitions seems highest within the political chattering class, but it could spread if the mayor continues to dance around his intentions without saying clearly what they are, analysts said. The speculation began in earnest last June, when he switched his registration from Republican to independent.

“With the way that he’s playing this right now, it features all the things that we like least about Michael Bloomberg,” said David S. Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at . “It features him as the testy, hard-to-satisfy critic of candidates who are already in the race, and it buttresses, the longer this goes on, the aloof critic role we might associate with a billionaire above the political fray rather than the dedicated politician and competent manager.”

Adding to the potential for national ennui, Mr. Birdsell said, was “the very long and frustrating dance over the summer,” which reduced the tolerance for indecision.

“That is going to make everybody considerably more focused on getting him to declare and to not have an erosion of enthusiasm that Fred Thompson experienced,” he said.

Impatience palpable
Closer to home, though, the impatience is already palpable, and could grow as the city’s economic situation turns more dire. After five years of ballooning surpluses, the last week projected a $3.1 billion deficit in 2009 and $4.6 billion in 2010, driven by the housing slump and softening Wall Street profits.

“There’s been a sea change where we’re moving into choppier fiscal waters that we haven’t had to navigate before,” said , the Manhattan borough president. With the convergence of what is shaping up to be a painful budget process this month and the presidential campaign calendar, he said, “they’re going to have to show their cards.”

“He has this great political good will,” he said, “but this is the day-to-day work of being the mayor and it’s going to be hard to do the day-to-day work while slipping off to Oklahoma, unless we New Yorkers know what the program is.”

George Arzt, a political consultant who was press secretary to Mayor , said that Mr. Bloomberg was risking the political fate of Mayor , whose 1972 presidential campaign took a hit when Brooklyn’s powerful boss, Meade H. Esposito, urged him to end his cross-country campaigning and address the city’s growing economic ills.

In a comment that was splashed across front pages at the time, Mr. Esposito said, “Little Sheba better come home.”

“There are people who have been watching Kevin Sheekey for a long time doing what he’s doing now,” Mr. Arzt said, adding that they wonder, “What’s the endgame?”

Stu Loeser, the mayor’s chief spokesman, said that he did not worry about New Yorkers becoming frustrated with Mr. Bloomberg’s handling of his national ambitions, and that the speculation helped bring Mr. Bloomberg more attention to advance his agenda in Washington and elsewhere.

“I’m not sure that increased speculation or increased elevation is harmful,” he said. “We spent part of the day in Albany yesterday, and judging from reaction of the rank-and-file members that we met with, it seemed that they were more focused on what the mayor had to say than less.”

Will momentum build?
And others played down the notion that Mr. Bloomberg was sowing ill will because the city is largely perceived to be well run.

“I find just as many people who like that he’s a big star as are concerned that he’s out of town too much,” said Representative , a likely candidate for mayor in 2009 who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. “Now, obviously, you don’t want to be caught giving a speech in California if the streets are clogged with snow in Queens, but so far, so good.”

Lee M. Miringoff, director of the polls tracking New York politics, said he does not believe frustration will grow over Mr. Bloomberg’s denials of interest in the presidency, mainly because there is not a groundswell of support for him to run.

“I’m thinking about when Mario Cuomo was hemming and hawing for several years, and I think that was more frustrating for people because there was a huge support base for him to do it,” Mr. Miringoff said. “And that’s not there right now for Bloomberg.”

A WNBC/Marist poll of 505 registered voters released last week said 60 percent of New York State voters wanted a strong third political party, but only 27 percent said they thought Mr. Bloomberg should run and only 12 percent thought he would win.

Whether momentum will build for his candidacy remains to be seen. Although there are several groups working to support an independent run this year, one of them, Unity08, is significantly scaling back its operations and stopping its project designed to help independent candidates get on the ballot. In a letter released to members Thursday, organizers said that they did not have enough members or money to get on the ballot in all 50 states and create an online convention to nominate a bipartisan ticket.

Two of their leaders, the letter said, were forming a committee to draft Mr. Bloomberg “should the circumstances seem right.”

Jonathan P. Hicks contributed reporting.