WASHINGTON In an unpredictable 2008 presidential race, the prospect of a viable third-party candidacy -- particularly a self-financed bid by billionaire Michael Bloomberg -- could be the biggest wild card of all.
Reports that Bloomberg, New York's Republican mayor, is willing to spend a big chunk of his personal fortune -- perhaps as much as $1 billion -- on a White House run set off a new round of speculation about his intentions and his possible impact on the November 2008 election.
The speculation was egged on by Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a conservative Republican and Iraq war opponent who also is considering an independent bid and had dinner with Bloomberg recently.
Hagel openly hinted about joining the mayor on a high-octane, third-party ticket that could reshape the political landscape and jolt the traditional U.S. two-party system.
"It's a great country to think about -- a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation," Hagel said earlier this week on CBS.
A third-party bid would hope to take advantage of public discontent with the Republican and Democratic parties, which already has led 60,000 people to sign up for an Internet-based movement aimed at fielding a bipartisan independent ticket in 2008.
The Unity '08 effort, led by a group of veteran political strategists from both parties, was inspired by the idea that both parties are dominated by their most extreme elements and a majority of Americans are looking for a centrist approach.
"The political system is at a point where the train has left the track," said Doug Bailey, a consultant on President Gerald Ford's 1976 campaign and founder of the Hotline political newsletter.
"There is no common ground and there is no capacity to seek common ground," said Bailey, a co-founder of the group along with Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon, advisers to former President Jimmy Carter.
He said the group, which hopes to have 2 million delegates signed up to participate in its June 2008 online nominating convention, has talked to about 40 potential candidates. He refused to say whether that included Bloomberg and Hagel.
ACTING LIKE A CANDIDATE
Bloomberg has tried to scuttle talk about a presidential candidacy without flatly ruling it out. But the former Democrat, who turned Republican to run for mayor, has been acting very much like a candidate for something.
He revived his campaign Web site and traveled recently to Texas and Oklahoma, two states with relatively difficult procedures for getting independent candidates on the ballot, to outline a plan for a national energy policy.
Any third-party candidate would face enormous obstacles, from meeting requirements to get on state ballots to producing from scratch the organizations that drive campaigns. But Bloomberg would have the money to overcome many of the normal hurdles, analysts said.
"Bloomberg can simply buy himself some support. Putting a billion dollars in the race can overcome a lot of challenges," said Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in California.
A liberal on social issues with a strong track record as a manager and businessman, Bloomberg would probably pull votes from both parties, Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said.
The history of modern third-party U.S. presidential bids offers few success stories. The most recent third-party candidates to break double-digits in popular vote percentage were businessman Ross Perot, who won 19 percent in 1992, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who won 13 percent in 1968.
Third-party candidates often play the role of spoiler, most famously in 2000 when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was blamed by Democrats for taking enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to hand the White House to Republican George W. Bush.
Public discontent does not necessarily translate into a winning third-party run, analysts said.
"Americans like the idea of third parties, but as we've seen repeatedly they are pretty well satisfied with the two-party system," said public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.