The Washington Post

A Run, or the Runaround?

Bloomberg, Other Non-Candidates Master Art of Being Vague

- By Michael D. Shear

It was clear that New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was enjoying himself yesterday as he toyed with the press corps there, taking 20 minutes of questions about the city’s 311 telephone informatio­n system at a news conference just a day after he bolted the Republican Party, but offering not a clue about his intentions. So goes the long tease. Following in the grand tradition of Hollywood, which painstakin­gly builds buzz for a summer blockbuste­r, Bloomberg is leading a field of would-be candidates whose presence on the political stage is either ephemeral or tantalizin­gly real. Call it the Art of the NonCandida­te.

Former vice president Al Gore hasn’t ruled out another White House bid. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says he will let the country know in November whether he’ll run. Former senator Fred D. Thompson has formed a committee but has not officially joined the race. And Sen. Chuck Hagel invited everyone to Nebraska, only to tell them to return later for an announceme­nt.

Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg’s former communicat­ions director, said that the mayor’s is the latest example of an act on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”: spinning multiple platters on tall sticks.

“You have to keep the platters wobbling and keep them on the sticks spinning, otherwise the act is over. There is an art to it,” Cunningham said. Regarding speculatio­n about a President Bloomberg, he said: “However it started, it’s now out there, growing like a weed.”

At the news conference, Bloomberg did nothing to pull the weed.

He smiled broadly as reporters sought increasing­ly inventive ways to get him to talk about his rumored presidenti­al ambitions. “Could you implement New York’s 311 system at the federal level better than, say, Hillary Clinton?” one reporter asked. Bloomberg’s answer said a lot about the federal bureaucrac­y and offered nothing about his plans.

Asked whether he would pledge to serve out his full term as mayor, Bloomberg said it is his “intention” to do so. But then he quickly began a critique of the current crop of national political leaders, who, he said, are not talking about the big issues confrontin­g the nation.

“The more people that run for office, the better,” he said. Later, he observed that pollsters who include him in presidenti­al surveys are “wasting their time” but then added that he’s “not sure” if the country needs another presidenti­al candidate from New York.

What he did not do is violate Rule No. 1 for the profession­al non-candidate which is never, under any circumstan­ces, answer the question “Are you running for president?” (The reporter who had the temerity to ask that yesterday got a complete brushoff.) To answer the question would be to reveal the secret behind the magic trick — the “will-he-or-won’t-he?” that captivates the public, frustrates the media and provides the practition­er national attention without any of the fuss of actually being a candidate.

“I always said the same thing,” recalled former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo, who famously dithered in the early 1990s about whether to seek the White House. “I have no plans to run. And I have no plans to make plans to run.”

“Does he say he’s a candidate? No. Does he mean it? Yes. He’s not being coy. He’s not being cute. He’s being totally honest,” Cuomo said of Bloomberg. Then, stressing the next two words, he added: “ Right now, I’m not running.” Gore, too, has become a master of the art. “I don’t plan to be a candidate again. I haven’t completely ruled out that possibilit­y, but I don’t expect to be a candidate,” he said at a conference last week, part of his globe-trotting, bookpromot­ing and preaching about the dangers of global warming.

Those closest to the former vice president are split about whether they think the man who won the popular vote in 2000 wants to make another run at the job. Several agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because Gore has not authorized them to comment publicly about his non-candidacy.

“He can walk into this race in September and finance this race himself and be in the top tier of candidates immediatel­y,” said one former senior staffer. “I think that he is very deliberate­ly keeping that option open.”

Another, however, said he has “seen nothing, nothing in the orbit of Al Gore to indicate that anybody’s exploring anything.”

So if Gore has no interest in a campaign, why doesn’t he just say so?

“By keeping the door ajar, he certainly helps magnify attention . . . on an issue that he really deeply cares about,” said Chris Lehane, a former Gore spokesman, who said Gore is doing “a brilliant job” of stoking interest in himself and his causes.

Meanwhile, in the months since Thompson’s name first bounced around Washington as a possible Republican candidate for president, the actor has slowly built interest with well-placed leaks about a growing political staff, developing campaign strategy and a $5 million fundraisin­g target.

“Fred Thompson’s carefully building the buzz and doing it much like you would roll out a big blockbuste­r,” said Paul Dergarabed­ian, whose Los Angeles company tracks box-office numbers for movies. “It comes down to Marketing 101. It’s about getting the marketplac­e in an anticipato­ry mood. Once you announce, it becomes a bigger deal than if you came out and just said, ‘I’m going to be a candidate.’ ” But Bloomberg, for now, has stolen the spotlight from the others — announced and unannounce­d.

At the news conference, the mayor introduced the city employee who answered the 50 millionth citizen informatio­n call. “This will be the key story tomorrow in the paper,” he told her, tongue clearly planted in cheek.

Then he asked her: “Do you have any aspiration­s for high office in government?”

She didn’t answer either.

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 ??  ?? Michael Bloomberg joins a list of would-be White House hopefuls that includes Al Gore, Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel.
Michael Bloomberg joins a list of would-be White House hopefuls that includes Al Gore, Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel.

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