Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Speculation is growing that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been polling in all 50 states, is preparing to run for president this year as an independent.

Bloomberg, who can easily bankroll such a venture with his estimated $11 billion fortune, denies he is a candidate, but his polling efforts are vast and he has been talking with potential running mates like Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He will likely decide in early March, after the 22-state Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5, when we will probably know who the major-party nominees are likely to be.

"I understand there is a campaign blueprint already for all 50 states that includes how to get on the ballot in each state and lists of friendly people who are likely to support him," said independent pollster John Zogby, who has polled for Bloomberg in the past.

The mayor appeared to lay out the basis for an independent candidacy at a forum last week in Norman, Okla., attended by a who's who of centrist political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike -- from former Sen. David Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat who organized the meeting, to former Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Charles Robb of Virginia.

Focusing on the gridlock that has gripped the government, Bloomberg told the meeting: "People have stopped working together. Government is dysfunctional. Nobody is holding themselves accountable to the standards of what they promised when they ran for office."

But even in today's deeply polarized political climate, few analysts think he has any chance of winning an electoral vote, let alone the presidency.

"We live in odd times when the normal conventional wisdom may no longer hold. But I would give it a 20 percent possibility of happening at this point in time," said Rhodes Cook, a highly regarded electoral-vote analyst.

"Still, there is an opening here," he went on. "The number of independents in this country is growing. That's where the real growth has been over the past 10 or 20 years. It has not been among Democrats or Republicans; it's been the independents."

There is a hunger in the electorate for a candidate who can end the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington and can get the two parties working together on common goals. This, to a large degree, is what has propelled Barack Obama's meteoric rise to political prominence and into contention for the presidency.

And therein lies the inherent weakness in an independent candidacy: the strength of the two-party system that draws support from a nationwide, organized structure of shared policy beliefs and interests.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.