WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s switch from Republican to independent fueled talk on Wednesday of a possible U.S. presidential bid that experts said could hurt Democrats, Republicans — or both.
Nobody in Washington who makes a living in politics thought the 65-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent could win. But third-party candidates can play a spoiler role.
Speaking to reporters in New York a day after his latest switch, Bloomberg sought on Wednesday to dampen speculation about a campaign while leaving the door firmly ajar to a race.
“I have said that my intention is to be mayor for the next 925 days,” he said. He said the shift was in keeping with how he wanted to lead the city.
But political analysts said the billionaire businessman seemed to be setting up at least the potential for jumping into the race at a late date, possibly with $500 million of his own personal fortune.
“You can’t underestimate a guy willing to spend $500 million in such a short period of time,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
With President George W. Bush on the ropes over Iraq and 10 Republicans and eight Democrats running to succeed him in the November 2008 election, Bloomberg created a tantalizing blaze of publicity for himself by becoming an independent.
But polls did not give him much hope at this stage. A survey by the Pew organization before Bloomberg announced his party switch said only 9 percent of voters who have heard of him said there was a good chance they would vote for him.
Worth an estimated $5.5 billion, Bloomberg could put up a formidable fight.
Witness Ross Perot in 1992, apparently taking votes from President George H.W. Bush, and Ralph Nader in 2000, capturing votes that might otherwise have gone to Democrat Al Gore, and even Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, who ruined things for William Howard Taft.
Democrats seized on Bloomberg’s party defection as an opportunity to swipe at the Republicans.
“I’m not surprised that anyone would want to leave the Republican Party,” said New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is leading in polls for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Republicans voiced disappointment at Bloomberg’s defection after helping bankroll his run for New York City mayor in 2001 when he abandoned the Democrats and became a Republican.
“I am sorry to learn of his decision,” said Republican National Committee chairman Robert “Mike” Duncan.
Conventional wisdom was a Bloomberg candidacy would hurt the Democratic nominee more, but some analysts saw a potential for Bloomberg to take votes from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, leading the polls in the Republican field.
Experts pointed to Bloomberg’s position in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion and in favor of greater gun control as evidence that the Republican Party’s conservative base would never warm to him if he were to run for president.
“In the end, I’m convinced he will be real trouble for the Democratic nominee,” said Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia, pointing to his “liberal views on all these social issues.”
“He’s going to split the Democratic base,” he said.
But Democrats were not convinced.
Jennifer Palmieri, senior vice president for communications at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Bloomberg’s shift seemed more a reflection of the Republicans’ weakness after eight years of the Bush administration.
“Republican voters would be more interested in going for an independent after eight years in the desert,” she said.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky