New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is prepared to spend an unprecedented $1 billion of his own $5.5 billion personal fortune for a third-party presidential campaign, personal friends of the mayor tell The Washington Times.
"He has set aside $1 billion to go for it," confided a long-time business adviser to the Republican mayor. "The thinking about where it will come from and do we have it is over, and the answer is yes, we can do it."
Another personal friend and fellow Republican said in recent days that Mr. Bloomberg, who is a social liberal and fiscal conservative, has "lowered the bar" and upped the ante for a final decision on making a run.
The mayor has told close associates he will make a third-party run if he thinks he can influence the national debate and has said he will spend up to $1 billion. Earlier, he told friends he would make a run only if he thought he could win a plurality in a three-way race and would spend $500 million -- or less than 10 percent of his personal fortune.
A $1 billion campaign budget would wipe out many of the common obstacles faced by third-party candidates seeking the White House.
"Bloomberg is H. Ross Perot on steroids," said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner. "He could turn the political landscape of this election upside down, spend as much money as he wanted and proceed directly to the general election. He would have resources to hire an army of petition-gatherers in those states where thousands of petitions are required to qualify a third-party presidential candidate to be on the ballot."
Senior Republican officials -- including those supporting declared Republican presidential nomination contenders -- and several top Democrats told The Times they take the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy as a serious threat in November 2008.
The Bloomberg team is studying the strategies of Mr. Perot, the Texas billionaire whose 1992 presidential campaign helped President Clinton to win the White House with 43 percent of the popular vote.
"Mike has been meeting with Ross Perot's most senior people about how they did an independent run in 1992," the Bloomberg business adviser said on condition of anonymity so as to avoid appearing to speak for Mr. Bloomberg.
Talk of Mr. Bloomberg as a third-party candidate comes as Republican voters are deeply divided over their top-three declared candidates -- Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- and are casting longing glances at former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Some of the people on McCain's [presidential campaign] staff have been calling me to see if Mike is running because they are ready to leave the McCain campaign, which is a biplane on fire and spiraling down," the Bloomberg adviser said.
Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, another independent-minded Republican, dined recently with Mr. Bloomberg and suggested on CBS' "Face the Nation" over the weekend that he and Mr. Bloomberg might make an independent run for the presidency.
But in Albany, N.Y., yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg downplayed that suggestion.
"I think he was probably joking," the mayor told reporters. Mr. Hagel "speaks his mind. ... He's not happy with the same things that I'm not happy about."
Republicans who say they are girding for a Bloomberg entry note Mr. Bloomberg has a 68 percent share of his privately owned company, Bloomberg LP. The company is worth $20 billion (and about $30 billion if put on the block for public bidding) and earns $1.5 billion annually in after-tax profits.
"If Bloomberg runs, he could have more money on hand than either of the two major party nominees," said Mr. Toner, the former FEC chairman. "It would be the first time that happened in the modern era."
A New York Daily News poll of the city's voters finds that Mr. Bloomberg, twice elected mayor as a moderate Republican, is far more popular than Mr. Giuliani, the former mayor who leads in most polls for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday he was flattered by that result but downplayed it at his Albany press conference, saying, "The current mayor always has a real advantage."
Social conservative leaders have told The Times they are determined to block Mr. Giuliani from becoming the Republican presidential candidate but that they can't stop Mr. Bloomberg from making a third-party run.
"This much I know, if Giuliani gets the Republican nomination, that is the ticket for the Democrats to get the White House in 2008," said Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council. "Many pro-life voters who have been voting Republican will not vote for the top of the ticket if it's Giuliani."
Other top social and religious conservative leaders, in separate interviews and discussions last week, told The Times their movement has decided to support Mr. Thompson for the Republican nomination. They said he has satisfied them that he is reliably supportive of religious-conservative positions on key issues.
"A third-party candidacy is almost inevitable" in 2008, said former Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Paul Goldman, who pointed out that third-party candidacies have affected the outcome of five of the past 10 presidential elections -- including George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Mr. Perot in 1992 and '96, and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000.
"If the Republicans nominate someone the press can tag as a pro-war social conservative and the Democrats pick an anti-war liberal, Bloomberg will run up the center," Mr. Goldman said. "If conservatives don't rally to stop Giuliani they will get a third party socially conservative candidate who will only help elect the Democrat."