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There is still a year and a half before the next U.S. presidential election, but campaigning is already intense. Even though there is no shortage of candidates from the two main parties, attention is now focusing on an as-yet undeclared candidate who may run as an independent. His denials notwithstanding, the decision of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to leave the Republican Party looks a lot like the first step in a bid for the top job in the United States.

Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire businessman who made his money — estimated at more than $5 billion — by establishing the financial news service that bears his name. Despite being a life-long Democrat, he joined the Republican Party in 2001 to win its nomination for mayor of New York City, a race he won and a job for which he was re-elected in 2005. Barred from seeking a third term, he must focus on other horizons.

Mr. Bloomberg has consistently said that he does not want to run for president, but by all appearances his team has been laying the groundwork for such a bid for several years. In recent months, he has been traveling the U.S. extensively and sharply critiquing the current administration for squandering U.S. leadership, and national politics generally for bitter partisanship and a refusal to tackle tough and pressing national issues. Mr. Bloomberg is positioning himself as a centrist, straight-talking politician who is focused on results, not rhetoric or ideology. On a recent trip to California, he used that theme to win over audiences — while appearing with that state’s maverick governor, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He will soon visit other key states to see how his message is received.

California aside, is the U.S. ready for a third-party candidate? If history is any guide, the answer is no. The only credible example in recent memory was the 1992 candidacy of Texas businessman Ross Perot. Yet after spending $65 million of his own money, he failed to win a single electoral vote. Of course, Mr. Perot was a quirky man, who quickly became his own nemesis. Moreover, U.S. election laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for independent candidates to launch national campaigns.

Mr. Bloomberg may overcome those obstacles, however. His tenure as mayor of New York City is widely viewed as a success, and much of that has been attributed to his policies and to his ability to reach out to both ends of the political spectrum. His positions on major issues are more closely attuned to the center of U.S. opinion rather than the fringes of either party — especially that of the GOP. His substantial fortune will permit him to test the waters without committing to a campaign, and will even allow him to join the race next year if he chooses to wait that long. Having spent $155 million of his own money for the two mayoral campaigns, the threat of an independent candidacy must be taken seriously.

Critics counter that Mr. Bloomberg may be a good mayor, but he is a poor politician and being a good politician is what is required to run successfully for president. He gets impatient quickly with campaigning and is not especially good on the stump. Geographic considerations are also important: Two front-runners in the other parties are from New York — his predecessor, former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton; a third choice from the state might tip the scales in those primary races.

Even if he does not have much chance of winning, Mr. Bloomberg could be a spoiler. While Mr. Perot did not win any electoral votes, he did claim 19 percent of the popular vote and Republicans blame him for depriving then President George Bush of a second term; Mr. Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 is credited with helping then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush defeat Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000. It is unclear which party a Bloomberg bid would hurt more — nor is there anything in his history to suggest that Mr. Bloomberg would take on the challenge to merely influence a vote, rather than win it outright.

But that does not mean that Mr. Bloomberg would not do his country a favor by flirting with a campaign. The current crop of candidates appears to be reaching out to their parties’ respective bases. That may be a wise strategy — it is generally believed that a successful nominee must first win hard-core supporters and then tack back to the center to pick up independent voters — but it looks cynical. It leaves a void at the center of U.S. politics, and that is where the majority of voters resides. Friends and allies of the U.S. would like to see a return to centrism and a rejection of the partisanship that dominates its politics and sometimes paralyzes decision-making. Mr. Bloomberg’s bid for the presidency could recharge the center; watch this space as the election nears.

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