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Will Bill Polish The Big Apple?

Bill Clinton headshot, holding "I Love New York" bumper sticker, 1992
AP
CBSNews.com's Brian Bernbaum checks out New York City's political fantasy du jour: That Bill Clinton is plotting to live in Gracie Mansion.
Not even Holy Water and wooden stakes can kill this rumor: A restless Bill Clinton swoops in from suburban Westchester County to save New York City from the sleep-inducing clutches of unpopular Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But just who is having this dream? Is it the ex-president or the media?

Clinton, who has an office in Harlem, maintains near rock-star status in New York, and at the spry age of 56, the former president's feet are itching for a fresh spot in the limelight alongside his senator wife Hillary, whose blockbuster memoir and rumored presidential ambitions have made her lady of the hour once again.

And with current Mayor Mike Bloomberg's approval rating at an all-time low of 24 percent, Mr. Clinton could easily administer a deathblow to the Bloomberg administration in the next election.

That's how the thinking goes, at least.

"Bill Clinton has already handled the hardest job in the world so why would he want to go back and deal with running a city?" said Jefrey Pollack, President of Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm. "It's a media-created rumor."

The reality, Pollack says, is that Clinton is making big bucks giving speeches around the world, (he made $9.5 million last year, compared to the measly $195,000 mayoral salary) and now he's busy working on his own White House memoir due out next year. Not to mention the fact that the former president doesn't actually live in New York City, a requirement for the job.

Still, it is widely rumored that Clinton wants back into public life. Just last month the former president suggested changing the 22nd Amendment to allow former two-term presidents to return to office.

And it's not the first time Clinton's name has been floated as possible contender for the top job at city hall. A New York Daily News/CBS-2 poll conducted during the last mayoral election in 2001 found Clinton would have crushed the competition, garnering 40 percent of the vote – more than double the second place candidate – had he jumped into that race.

The "Mayor Clinton" gossip surfaced most recently in Washingtonian magazine, which cited unnamed "friends of Bill," as saying that Clinton was gearing up to challenge Bloomberg.

And ever since the story first reared its juicy head, plenty of politicians and pundits – including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg himself - have weighed in on the topic, keeping it afloat in the press.

"He won't run, the man's been president of the United States, and after that there's no place else to go," said Hank Scheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. "Being mayor is a no-win situation every day. You've got the daily demands of running a city; you've got the press corps that doesn't let up. And he's out of public life, it's not a bad life for him here."

Still, given the generally gloomy economy and rising pessimism among New Yorkers about their city, the prospect of Bill Clinton running for office gives many a much-needed dose of nostalgia for better days.

"Bill Clinton running for mayor would be the great fantasy of campaigns," said Scheinkopf. "New York City has an extraordinary affection for Bill Clinton. When he was president, the city saw tremendous economic growth, everybody's life was a little bit easier, the city was a little nicer to be in, everybody felt a little more secure, but I just don't see it as an option."

But, Sheinkopf adds, if Clinton were to run, "I would always vote for Bill Clinton. But could he win? Who knows?"

Some New York politicians think Clinton's a shoe-in, though they're quick to shrug it off.

"Bill Clinton could win anything he would run for, including mayor of the city of New York," Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. told the New York Times. "But he's got everything now."

It was Rangel who first suggested that Hillary Clinton consider running for the Senate, so his comments helped to spur the story on. A day later, New York City Council speaker Gifford Miller, a prospective 2005 Democratic candidate, said if Clinton ran he would step aside.

"I don't think you could be a lot more qualified than having served as president of the United States of America," Miller said at a press conference. "He has done a phenomenal job for our country. So if Bill Clinton wants to run for mayor, I'll support him."

Bloomberg, whose public smoking ban and property tax hike has gained him more enemies than friends, doesn't think Clinton has a chance.

"I'll be very comfortable putting my record against anybody else's promises in the next election for mayor," the multi-billionaire mayor said last week. "And I will get reelected."

For his part, Clinton himself hasn't uttered so much as a word on the subject. His spokesperson, James E. Kennedy, though not ruling out the possibility, has all but quashed the rumor with e-mails to the contrary saying that, "running for mayor is not something he's considering."

So, the scenario of the former president at City Hall is probably nothing more than another tantalizing tidbit for the Clinton rumor mill.

Or is it?

"It's a complete rumor, but sometimes these things do turn into something," said Pollack. "I remember when Hillary for senate was just a rumor, and look what happened."

By Brian Bernbaum