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.
With all of its faults, the two major parties over the course of our history have managed to unite common political interests that no third party or independent candidacy has been able to overcome.
"Political parties, for all the nastiness between them, have proved essential to bridge the regional divisions in the United States," the Boston Globe said last week in an editorial critique of a Bloomberg candidacy. "A narrowly focused third party, or an independent campaign, lacks the breadth of shared interests to govern a nation of 300 million people."
Millionaire gadfly Ross Perot blew $60 million on a third-party bid in 1992, but did not win a single electoral vote, and, many believe, helped put Bill Clinton in the White House by drawing votes from the GOP's base.
But what would Bloomberg, a Democrat who ran as a Republican and then became an independent, have to offer apart from his call to end political gridlock in government?
With Hillary Clinton, Obama and John Edwards in the Democratic race, "Bloomberg's pro-science, anti-gun, pro-green, anti-smoking, pro-choice ... just-left-of-center ideology seems a domestic agenda that is already well covered," David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker. "Bloomberg could siphon votes, mainly from the Democrats, but to what end?"
Some election analysts say his chances depend on whether the two parties choose nominees at the fringes that could drive just enough voters to a centrist candidacy selling competence and bipartisanship.
"It would take a stark contrast -- say, John Edwards versus Mike Huckabee -- to give him any room to run. The more likely matchup -- John McCain versus Clinton or Obama -- would put him in the role of a spoiler," said Tom Mann, a veteran presidential-elections analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The spoiler role conjures up a bitter memory for Democrats who well remember Ralph Nader's 2000 run on the Green Party ticket. Nader drew only 2.7 percent of the vote out of more than 105 million popular votes, but he robbed Al Gore of Florida's electoral votes and the White House.
In the meantime, Bloomberg is going over his polling data and waiting to see whom the two parties will choose before assessing his chances. Some say don't rule him out.
"In the Republican red states, a Democrat still gets 40 percent of the vote or more," Zogby told me. "All this guy needs is a plurality of 35 percent in the right number of states, and he could win."