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NYC Mayor Fuels Rumors Of Independent Run

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned up the volume on a possible independent bid for president on Monday, participating in a bipartisan summit that stole a bit of the spotlight from the announced candidates in New Hampshire.

Amid talk about Washington riven by partisanship, Bloomberg gathered with Democrats and Republicans - some current elected officials, others out of office for years - to discuss bridging the divide between the parties. The summit came on the eve of the first-in-the-nation primary.

"People have stopped working together, government is dysfunctional, there's no collaborating and congeniality," Bloomberg said to applause from the crowd. "America is being held back," he said.

The panel also included Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is often mentioned as an ideal running mate for Bloomberg.

"Every one of us in this group this morning believes there are opportunities to turn things around for our country, our future, our children, the world," Hagel said.

A long line of people - students, political junkies and Bloomberg backers - stretched down the street before the event began.

"The opportunity to remove partisan politics from the dialogue is a wonderful idea," said Dennis Ryan, 74, a lawyer from Oklahoma City.

But the national media who traveled to the University of Oklahoma, and some in the crowd of about 1,000, were there to see Bloomberg more than anyone else. The multibillionaire mayor switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent last summer, increasing the political chatter about a potential third-party bid for the presidency.

Some of the event's organizers themselves have bluntly billed the gathering as a warning to the major party candidates that they are prepared to back an independent candidate - someone like Bloomberg - if they do not see more cooperation among the declared contenders.

It is unclear what exactly the group is seeking from the candidates. Several already have made bipartisanship part of their campaign messages.

Democrat Barack Obama, who won the Iowa caucuses, referred to that theme several times during his victory speech, telling his supporters: "You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation... you said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington."

The Republican winner in Iowa, Mike Huckabee, also referred to a desire for bipartisan unity.

What Americans want, he said in his speech, is for their president "to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans, to be more concerned about going up instead of just going to the left or to the right."

The group in Oklahoma spent several hours Sunday night and Monday morning drafting a joint statement about the urgency of drawing the parties to work together in addressing issues such as health care, climate change, homeland security and the economy. It urged the presidential candidates to provide "clear descriptions of how they would establish a government of national unity," and "specific strategies for reducing polarization and reaching bipartisan consensus."

Asked last week what the candidates were failing to do in this area, Bloomberg gave an answer that did not have one main focus, suggesting, among other things, that none of the contenders has a plan to fight terrorism, solve world hunger or stop genocide. He did not offer his own.

The group includes former Republican Sen. Bill Brock of Tennessee, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Democratic Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is often mentioned as the ideal running mate for Bloomberg.

"We come together to appeal to all presidential candidates to tell us how they plan to bring us together: Hear our plea, bring us together," Boren said.

Asked what he would do if the candidates did not respond, Bloomberg demurred.

"I think all the members of the panel are optimistic that the candidates will listen to us and will understand that there is a deep need in this country and a deep desire among the electorate to have the candidates face the issues," he said.

The billionaire mayor, who is in his second term, says publicly that he will not run, but his denials have weakened as his aides more boldly explore a potential candidacy.

The mayor has been entertaining presidential speculation for more than two years, but time is closing in - he needs to make a decision within about the next several months in order to begin the exhaustive and complicated process of collecting signatures to get on the ballot, a process that differs state by state.

The earliest deadline now is Texas; he would need to collect about 74,100 signatures by May 12, and can only begin the petitioning there on March 5. A number of states follow with June deadlines, including Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina.

The process takes a lot of troops on the ground and an army of election lawyers to fend of the eventual challenges that would come from the major party candidates. Bloomberg, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.5 billion, could solve most of these problems with money.

Whether the confab is intended as a launching pad for a billion-dollar Bloomberg candidacy, that depends on whom you ask.

Graham, who sought the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, told The Associated Press last week that the meeting "is not a third-party effort" and said he didn't think an independent candidate could get elected.

"Frankly, what I think is best for the country is to have a strong viable two-party system," he said. "We have enough problems getting consensus with the two parties - our goal is to make suggestions on how to make the current system work."

And Whitman issued a statement last week to clarify that it was "never the intent" for the conference to be considered the first step toward a third-party presidential bid.

"We continue to be loyal party members," Whitman told CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller, "but the parties are in trouble right now, and we're not responding to the American people. We're not providing them with the kind of answers that they want."

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