NORMAN, Okla. — On the eve of the crucial New Hampshire primaries, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stirred some presidential talk of his own Monday, calling the political system "dysfunctional" and fueling speculation that he'll soon mount an independent bid for the White House.
Bloomberg, the star guest at a "bipartisan forum" of prominent centrists at the University of Oklahoma, once again declared that he's "not a candidate," which in modern politics translates to "ask me again tomorrow." In the meantime, his personal wealth, his flashy departure from the two-party system last summer and his appearance here have made him the biggest wild card of the 2008 campaign. His comments Monday did little to quell the speculation at an event that warned of political catastrophe unless urgent changes are made.
"People have stopped working together. Government is dysfunctional," Bloomberg said. "I think there's no accountability today. Nobody is holding themselves accountable to the standards of what they promised when they ran for office."
Bloomberg, who's gotten high marks for his tenure as mayor, said voters wanted results, not ideologically driven leaders who catered to special interests.
"America is being held back," he said. "What we want is people to be selected for government based on competency. . . . Somehow or another we seem to have lost our vision. We've become afraid, and there is no reason for America to be afraid."
Listening in the audience was Dean Barkley, the architect of Jesse Ventura's successful third-party run for governor in Minnesota. Barkley said he thought that Bloomberg "sounded more like a candidate than not," and he noted that the mayor's advisers are researching the possibility of an independent race.
"He's weighing his options. I think Bloomberg is the kind of guy who will decide to run if he thinks he can win," Barkley said. "He doesn't do anything to lose."
Whether there's a national appetite for an independent candidate this year remains unclear. Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, has rocketed to the top of polls in New Hampshire since his win last week in Iowa, where he preached unity and an end to the type of partisan meltdown that gave rise to Monday's meeting in Oklahoma. Likewise, Republican former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who pulled off a stunning win in Iowa, has run as a Washington outsider who's willing to take unorthodox stands on taxes and social spending.
Bloomberg and other participants at the meeting acknowledged that there'd been a call for national unity in the recent contests but expressed fears that it could evaporate.
"Maybe you are seeing that," Bloomberg said. "And if it was true of a few of the candidates, maybe . . . going forward during the months of January and February and March, each of them will do exactly the same thing."
Former Sen. David Boren, now the University of Oklahoma president and the chief organizer of the event, suggested that some of the candidates were inspired to preach unity after hearing about the bipartisan call for it.
"I do think we see some encouraging signs as we listen to comments from several of the candidates in recent days," he said. "Perhaps even the existence of this meeting in advance of it was already beginning to have some impact."
Boren and other participants said they merely wanted a productive, gridlock-free government and that promoting Bloomberg's political fortunes wasn't what the conference was about. But before the meeting, Boren had suggested that former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., or Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. — both in attendance Monday — could make a good running mate for Bloomberg should he jump in.
Also at the meeting were former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, both Republicans, along with former U.S. Sens. Chuck Robb, D-Va., and Gary Hart, D-Colo.
Election laws are geared toward a two-party system, so any independent candidate would have an uphill organizational climb to get on the ballot in all 50 states. But Bloomberg hasn't hesitated to use his vast wealth to advance his political career. He spent $74 million on his 2001 campaign for mayor, and another $85 million three years later, according to published reports.
There's also a draft movement, whose organizers are seeking support for the state-by-state petition drives that would be necessary to get Bloomberg on the ballot.
"We're not taking 'no' for an answer," said Gail Parker, a draft organizer from Virginia. She held up a Bloomberg '08 sign outside the auditorium where he spoke.
Even if Bloomberg doesn't enter the race, the centrist group will press the eventual major-party nominees and candidates for Congress to put aside partisan interests for the good of the country at a time of monumental challenges at home and abroad, Boren said. All 17 signed a statement designed to encourage political cooperation and fiscal responsibility.
"America is in danger," the statement says. "We are headed in the wrong direction."
Cohen said budgetary ruin loomed unless Washington quit borrowing and spending as if there were no tomorrow.
"We've got to pay our bills. We can't continue to borrow from our children," he said. "We are engaged in fiscal child abuse."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)