WASHINGTON — As presidential candidates battle in New Hampshire and beyond, an older generation of prominent politicians is bemoaning the whole polarized scene -- grousing that could encourage New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to jump into the race and transform the political landscape.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of these elders is meeting at the University of Oklahoma to urge candidates to set a less divisive tone and stop catering to their narrow political bases.
That centrist yearning -- an oft-recurring theme in American politics -- is shared by Bloomberg, who denies White House ambitions but whose aides are exploring a possible independent bid for president.
He plans to attend the Oklahoma forum and may find a receptive audience.
"The main point is to talk about the need for a new tone and greater bipartisanship," said former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who also plans to attend. "Whether it is the makings of a third-party movement, that's for time to develop."
Other analysts, dismissing the prospects for bipartisanship in a bitterly contested election year, say that there is little hope for third-party candidates in general -- and Bloomberg in particular.
"If there is space for a third-party candidate in 2008, it's not obvious that Mayor Bloomberg fits the bill," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
"He's not identified with a particular cause that roils public passion."
The results of Thursday's Iowa caucuses could narrow the political space for a possible Bloomberg candidacy, because it elevated two candidates -- Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama -- who had broken out of the establishment mold.
Obama has echoed Bloomberg's call for a less polarized political climate, and Huckabee has challenged key elements of the GOP's political orthodoxy.
But Douglas E. Schoen -- a pollster who has worked with Bloomberg and is author of the upcoming book "Declaring Independence," about the possibility of a third-party candidacy in 2008 -- said that the Iowa results could reinforce the case for Bloomberg to run.
The success of Obama and Huckabee, he says, underscored the sense that people want a different, bridge-building voice in the polarized two-party debate.
The 16 members of the group, organized by former Sens. David Boren (D-Okla.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), comprise a who's who of the kind of centrists who seem a dying breed in Washington. They include conservative Southern Democrats like Boren and Nunn and moderate Republicans like Leach, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Missouri Sen. John C. Danforth.
"This is the Ben-Gay crowd," Nunn jokes.
Group members agree that the presidential candidates are catering to the political extremes, not addressing the biggest issues that will require bipartisan solutions -- managing the budget deficit, strengthening the military, securing energy supplies.
"No one party is going to be able to solve those problems," said Nunn, who, like many others in the group, served in Congress when party lines were not so stark.
"Those of us in this group, back in the earlier periods in Congress, knew that."
For now, the group hopes to persuade the major-party candidates to change their tone and focus. But if they do not, that may provide an opening for an independent candidate, Nunn said.
Many in the group -- including Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Nunn -- might think of themselves as such a candidate.
But the most intense focus of speculation about an independent candidacy is on Bloomberg. He has repeatedly denied that he plans to run for president. "Which letter of the word 'no' do you not understand?" he has said.
Still, he and his allies have kept the talk alive, providing flattering attention to a politician about to step out of the limelight when his mayoral term ends in 2009.
On the eve of Iowa caucuses this week, he criticized established presidential candidates as not offering solutions to the country's toughest problems.
His political aides are privately exploring a possible independent bid, and word that he was attending the Oklahoma forum intensified speculation about his intentions.
"Bloomberg is going to spend the next two months doing an assessment of his prospects," said Schoen.
Bloomberg political aide Kevin Sheekey is conducting the exploration, Schoen said.
Bloomberg is a longtime Democrat who became a Republican to run for mayor in 2001 -- but left the GOP in June and registered as an independent. He is a multibillionaire who could easily self-finance a late-starting presidential race.
A "Draft Bloomberg" website, UniteforMike.com, praises the mayor for managerial competence, pragmatism and bipartisan reach.
Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher who sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000, recently told CNN, "Unless something extraordinary happens, I expect him in the race."