Running Hard By Staying Out

If you want to send a message in Washington, issue a press release—or go to the Palm. It's a restaurant where the jocular masks the manipulative: a stock exchange of politics, with bigger portions. It was perfect for Michael Bloomberg, the nominally Republican billionaire mayor of New York, who wants to run for president as an independent. Not long ago he asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, the maverick antiwar Republican, to dine with him there. They sat at a prominent table. Predictable things happened. The Washington Post ran a gossip item the next morning. TV bookers read it. "Face the Nation" booked Hagel, who praised Bloomberg as a man "not tied down and captive of a political ideology" and didn't say "no" to running mate. "It's a great country," he said, "to think about a New York boy and a Nebraska boy teaming up to lead the nation." Check, please!

We are in the Palm phase of the 2008 campaign. Alluring (or merely diverting) scenarios of late-entering, out-of-the-box candidacies flow with the ease of, and sometimes because of, the Cabernet. The possibilities include Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich in the GOP race and, on the Democratic side, the Big Kahuna himself, Al Gore. "It's an unusual year," said former senator Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School. "Voters are looking for new leadership wherever they can find it."

Every cycle has this moment, but in the '08 race, the search for Others is particularly early and intense. Many Democrats fret that their front runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, will lap the current field without being able to win the White House. Christian right leaders don't think much of the GOP's announced contenders. The situation is ripe for an independent. Dissatisfaction with the political system is at a record high in the polls. A front-loaded primary schedule means the nominees will be known seven months before their coronation, lots of time for buyers' remorse and the dramatic entrance of a third-way rescue mission.

So who is planning—or dreaming? Among independents, Bloomberg has brains and bucks, and has been studying a run with great care. "He has an almost British style, which is to make it all look effortless," said polltaker Frank Luntz, "but he's learned all the details of how it would work." Vastly wealthy from his eponymous media empire, he flirts publicly and privately with the other loose electrons circling the nucleus of traditional politics, among them Gore. A mutual friend of the two in the New York financial world has even suggested to them that they should run as an independent ticket—an idea, I am told, the former veep dismissed.

Gore is a deep-dyed Democrat; the real question is whether he will be a late entrant for the party nomination. He is "50-50," according to one of his closest friends and financial backers. On the one hand, Gore inquires about Manhattan office space for his business and charity ("It has to be a 'green' building," said this source, who didn't want to be named discussing Gore's affairs). On the other hand, he keeps his face in front of big donors, as he did at a recent dinner in Miami. Gore is all the rage among corporate executives, who see wisdom—and profits—in going green, and who appreciate Gore's prescience. "Al has set this up so he can jump either way in the fall," said the close friend. "If there is an opening, I say he goes."

In the meantime, Gore practices the Zen of running-by-not-running. Some Democrats tout a team of Gore and Sen. Barack Obama, whose effort to overtake Hillary has stalled, at least temporarily. In this version, Gore enters Iowa late, storms to victory and asks Obama to be his running mate. "Gore-Obama is a very big ticket, probably unbeatable," said Kerrey. He was not at the Palm when he said so, but he may as well have been. It is not just a restaurant, really. It's a state of mind.