Reporting from New York — In the 1931 satirical musical "Of Thee I Sing," a politician is advised by his party's bosses that if he really isn't running for president, he should stop denying he's running — only a real candidate does that.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and one of the richest men in America, made such a denial in the last week. He also gave a major economic address, appeared on a network talk show, got top billing at a political meeting, and saw his powerful media company launch an opinion section, offering a whole new platform for his views — hardly the stuff of a card-carrying noncandidate. He's also been sporting a purple tie, telegraphing his ever more admired brand of blended red-Republican and blue-Democrat can-do governance.
Even before "Meet the Press" host David Gregory got a chance Sunday to ask The Question, Bloomberg offered an answer: "I'm not going to run for president.... I've got a great job. I'm going to finish out my 1,100 and whatever number of days it is left to go, and I'll leave the politics to the experts."
Aside from providing NBC with excellent footage if he did run in 2012, the mayor's denial seemed to stoke only more interest in his political future. Which just might have been the point.
"The disconnect sure is striking between Bloomberg's constant denials and the kind of schedule he's keeping and speeches he's giving" said Bill de Blasio, New York's public advocate and one of the few public officials here who regularly criticizes the mayor on issues such as homelessness and education. "But I don't think anybody outside his close circle knows what he's up to."
Many in the Washington-New York political bubble are convinced that the mayor — or more likely his savvy political sidekick Kevin Sheekey — is simply securing a platform and assembling a Rolodex of supporters for a Bloomberg-for-president campaign if he sees an opening to run as a third-party candidate in 2012.
The nonpartisan No Labels group that was launched Monday in New York with Bloomberg on stage and hundreds of like-minded centrists in the audience could provide the organization. But the founders, mostly powerful Washington insiders, made sure to insist it is not a sleeper cell for a Bloomberg candidacy. They said they hoped to attract 1 million members by next year to act as sort of hall monitors to stop partisan bickering and push moderate politicians like, yes, Bloomberg.
Then came the announcement Thursday that Bloomberg's global financial media company was starting an opinion section. "Bloomberg is keeping himself in the field in case lightning strikes and he decides to run," said a friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the mayor.
"Mike and his people don't like anyone to talk about this stuff publicly, but this is exactly how he played the game four years ago," the friend added.
During the last presidential cycle, Bloomberg was similarly flirtatious in public while his aides privately studied his viability as a candidate. He gave speeches, went on talk shows, kept up the denials, but ultimately decided the conditions weren't right. Or as he joked, when asked in spring 2007 whether he was running: "A short, Jewish billionaire from New York? C'mon."
For conditions to ripen for any outsider to make headway in 2012, President Obama would still have to be politically hobbled and the economy still stalled, said Don Baer, a former advisor to President Clinton. "In that case, there would be a lot of people looking around for new solutions, new people — and the conditions for an independent third force running and winning would be greater than in any in our lifetimes."
In the past, third-party candidates have mostly been spoilers. In 1992, Ross Perot, a wealthy, eccentric Texan with no experience in governing, received a historic 19% of the vote that might otherwise have helped George H.W. Bush get reelected, but instead vaulted Clinton into power.
Baer, now a Washington public relations executive, speculated that Bloomberg wouldn't want to be a spoiler for Obama, though the mayor would appeal to those who want a leader who can just "get the job done."
"There may be others out there like that," Baer said, "but it's hard to imagine someone else with the same profile and platform and record."
Bloomberg was elected to a third mayoral term last year, but the vote margin was narrow and turnout low.
In his second term, he began focusing on national problems. He launched a coalition of mayors and business leaders to overhaul immigration policy; he stormed Washington with Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and Ed Rendell (D-Pa.) to raise awareness about the country's crumbling infrastructure. He led a national effort to improve public health.
It is not unprecedented for New York mayors to weigh in on national issues and aspire to the White House. The joke around City Hall during former Mayor Ed Koch's era was that he even had his own foreign policy.
Joyce Purnick, a journalist who wrote the biography "Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics," said she suspected he was expanding his national profile less out of a profound desire to be president than because he was "close to panicking" about what he'll do when his term expires.
"He will be 70 in 2012 and he's fearing the loss of relevance," she said. "The mayor of New York is an international celebrity and has a platform.... Who will he be when that's gone?"
Just another New Yorker worth at last estimate $20 billion?
Purnick described Bloomberg as a restive personality who always looked around for the next challenge and absolutely believes he's qualified to be president. "Will he run? I suspect he will not," Purnick said. "As he did when he ran for mayor in 2001, he would only run if he saw a path to victory, and the chances of a third-party candidate being any more than a spoiler are slim."