At Independent Forum, Optimism on Iowa Results
By Keith B. Richburg
NORMAN, Okla. -- New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rolled his independent non-campaign for president into Sooner country today, declaring once again "I'm not a candidate" as he joined a bipartisan forum of mostly former elected officials seeking new ways to solve Washington's partisan gridlock.
The conference was organized by former Democratic senator David L. Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma. It was intended to send a signal to all the candidates for president that the nation is yearning for a return to bipartisanship to solve pressing problems, from the need for investment in infrastructure to making Social Security solvent for the retiring baby boom generation.
But while much of the focus here was on Bloomberg -- who was trailed here by a large New York media contingent -- some of the spotlight had already shifted to New Hampshire, where Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was trying to build on his win in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa by making the very same appeal for unity among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
"This meeting was scheduled prior to the Iowa caucuses," said Boren. Without naming Obama, he added, "I do think we see some emerging signs" of bipartisan appeals in the presidential race.
"I hope you're right," Bloomberg said, when asked if the meeting had become redundant given the results from Iowa. "I hope all of the candidates say the public is tired of the partisanship and the special interests."
The group included, among others, several former senators known for their willingness to work across party lines when in Washington -- Democrats Bob Graham of Florida, Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Gary Hart of Colorado and Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Republicans Bill Brock of Tennessee, William S. Cohen of Maine and John Danforth of Missouri.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Bloomberg on an independent ticket, was the only serving senator to attend.
After several hours of discussion, Sunday night and early Monday, the group came out with what it called a "joint statement of principles," urging all the presidential contenders in both parties to outline plans to establish a government of national unity, appoint a bipartisan cabinet of experts, and form bipartisan policy groups in critical areas such as national security.
"Rampant partisanship has polarized the ability of government to act," said Nunn, reading the group's joint statement. "If we unify, we can turn America's peril into America's promise."
Asked whether the presidential candidates would really be open to the bipartisan appeals of the panel in the heat of the primaries, Bloomberg said, "I think all the members of the panel are optimistic that the candidates will listen to us."
Bloomberg's own, often-denied presidential ambitions would seem the most complicated by the Obama's rise in the polls and the strength of his "post-partisan" message. After convincingly winning Iowa's caucuses last week, Obama said, "The time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington" and he promised to build a new "working coalition for change."
That was precisely Bloomberg's appeal.
While he has consistently denied any interest in joining the presidential field, Bloomberg has lately been raising his profile to a national -- and international -- level, speaking out on issues beyond New York, and acting more and more like a candidate.
After switching from the Republican Party to become an independent in the summer, Bloomberg traveled in December to China and to a climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia. He led a coalition of mayors demanding stricter controls on handguns. He appeared last week on NBC's "Today" show, and CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman," and he has a cameo appearance planned for Thursday on Donald Trump's show, "The Apprentice."
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Bloomberg also took time out from a routine press conference on teenage smoking to criticize the entire presidential field for not offering solutions to the country's biggest problems.
Bloomberg would have to be considered a formidable presidential candidate, coming with a personal fortune estimated at more than $11 billion and the ability to self-finance a national campaign.
Because of term limits, he cannot run for reelection when his current, second term ends next year. But he must decide soon, because of complicated ballot-access considerations for third-party or independent candidates. The first looming deadline is May 12, in Texas, where he must submit some 74,000 signatures to be assured a place on the Texas ballot, and he can only begin collecting signatures on March 5.
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