Why Bloomberg May Not Want to Run

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Jeff Zelevansky / Reuters

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference at the city's 311 Call Center in New York June 20, 2007.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had his media moment Wednesday, and the newly minted independent said all the coy and clever things that potential Presidential candidates are supposed to say to keep their options open and their profiles high:

"The more people that run for office, the better."

"The big issues of our time keep getting pushed to the back."

And when asked if he'd pledge to serve out his entire term, Bloomberg offered the standard dodge: "I have said that my intention is to be Mayor for the next 925 days."

On the day after he capped a campaign-style swing through California by ditching the Republican Party, the media mogul "did little to quiet the fierce speculation about a possible independent presidential bid," as the Associated Press put it. He temporarily knocked Paris Hilton off the 24-hour news channels — and proved he's a bit of a flirt himself. Needless to say, the punditocracy is in a tizzy, gleefully analyzing how Bloomberg's billions will transform the already wide-open campaign landscape.

But sometimes a flirt is just a flirt. Bloomberg clearly wants to be a player in the 2008 election, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be a candidate.

"Mike thinks he has something to contribute to the national debate, and he wants his voice on the national stage," says Joel Klein, Bloomberg's school chancellor. "But it would be a mistake to infer from all this that he's running."

By quitting the G.O.P., Bloomberg has kept open the option of an independent campaign; that option wouldn't be open to a registered Republican. But there are still plenty of reasons to wonder whether he'll exercise that option.

Start with his words today. Maybe Bloomberg didn't entirely "quiet the fierce speculation," but he did say that he wasn't running. The New York Times reported that he "insisted" he wasn't running, "insisted" in this case being defined as "said even though nobody believes him," but he's been saying that for months. Maybe he really does think that "I've got the greatest job in the world and I'm going to keep doing it," as he said (insisted?) today. When asked if he could imagine a circumstance in which he'd run for President, he responded: "If everyone in the world was dead and I was the only one alive? Sure." That's not flirtatious; that's edging into no-means-no territory.

Then check out his words in the past. Bloomberg is a lame-duck Mayor, and he's pointed out several times that the national attention he gets over his Presidential prospects helps him move his agenda on guns, education, poverty, housing and global warming. It also gives him a national platform to complain about partisan gridlock and the power of special interests in Washington, as he did in TIME's current cover story. "If they speculate about the Presidency and it helps, I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't go and continue to use every advantage that I can to promote New York's cause," he said in March.

It's also hard to imagine that Bloomberg will run if he doesn't think he can win; he wouldn't want to be remembered as the Ralph Nader of 2008, the long-shot candidate who acted as a spoiler to help tip an election. He's been a popular and effective Mayor, and he's got the money to finance a dozen campaigns, but independent campaigns tend to fail — partly because getting on the ballot in all 50 states is an excruciating process no matter how rich the candidate is. He'd probably need to win an outright majority to keep the election out of the partisan House, and it's not clear where a pro-gay-marriage, pro-gun-control, anti-death-penalty divorcee who raised taxes and banned trans fats in New York while opposing deadlines for troop withdrawals in Iraq, would find the electoral votes.

"He's done a brilliant job on issues, but what's the campaign strategy?" asked one former City Hall insider. "He's wrong on guns for Ohio; he's wrong on cars for Michigan; he's pretty far left, except for Iraq — and I don't know where he is on that." A Quinnipiac poll puts him a distant third in a three-way race against Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani in New York. "I know he won't want to be a spoiler," says former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who has endorsed Clinton in her primary — but has reserved the right to endorse Bloomberg in a general election.

Bloomberg constantly refers to the clock he set up in City Hall to count down the minutes of his mayoralty; today, he said he had "925 days and probably about 10 hours" left. He's got a lot he wants to get done, including America's most ambitious education overhaul, an affordable housing initiative and a global warming plan. And he's got a lot he wants to get done when he's done; he's already ramping up his philanthropic foundation.

Maybe the lure of the Presidency will be impossible to resist. But Bloomberg is 65 years old, and even some of his admirers struggle to imagine him crashing in a Holiday Inn in Nashua, N.H. They also struggle to imagine him shedding the last vestiges of his privacy (and some of his luxury!) to live in the White House; as Mayor, he's refused to tell the City Hall press corps when he's jetted off to his vacation home in Bermuda. Bloomberg has led a charmed life, but if he ever wonders about the pitfalls of a rich guy running for President, he can always ask his Bermuda neighbor: a guy named Ross Perot.