By SARA KUGLER
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did little on Wednesday to quiet the fierce speculation about a possible independent presidential bid, declaring he intends to remain in his current job but saying of the White House race: "The more people that run for office the better."
A day after quitting the Republican Party and registering as unaffiliated, Bloomberg continued to send mixed signals about his intentions, discussing both his mayoral term and vowing to address the major issues facing the country.
"I've got the greatest job in the world," he told reporters at a news conference in downtown Manhattan to promote the city's non-emergency information hot line. Then commenting on the 2008 race, he spoke approvingly of more candidates.
After some six years as a Republican, the 65-year-old former CEO announced Tuesday that he has left the Republican Party and become unaffiliated in what many believe could be a step toward entering the 2008 race for president.
Bloomberg has fueled those notions with increasing out-of-state travel, greater focus on national issues and repeated criticism of partisan politics, all the while vowing to leave public office at the end of his term in 2009.
On Wednesday, he offered opinions on public education, immigration, Iran and several other issues that have surfaced in the presidential campaign.
"The big issues keep being pushed to the back ... I'm going to speak out on those issues. By not being affiliated with a party, I think I will have a better opportunity to do that," the mayor said.
He said that speculation that he could enter the race was flattering but added, "I'm not a candidate. ... We even have two people from New York who are candidates for president of the United States. I'm not sure the state needs a third."
Notwithstanding Bloomberg's coyness, the mayor's party switch only increases speculation he will pursue the White House, challenging the Democratic and Republican nominees with a well-financed third-party bid.
Bloomberg, who founded the Bloomberg LP financial news service, has an estimated worth of more than $5 billion and easily could underwrite a White House run, much like Texas businessman Ross Perot did in 1992. Bloomberg spent more than $155 million for his two mayoral campaigns, including $85 million when he won his second term in 2005.
A Bloomberg entry into the presidential contest could inject additional turmoil into an already wide-open race, but there is no clear consensus on how a Bloomberg candidacy would affect the outcome.
Some operatives believe Bloomberg's moderate positions would siphon votes from the Democratic nominee. Others say he could just as easily spoil it for the Republicans.
A Quinnipiac University poll, conducted just before the mayor's announcement, found that among New York state voters Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton led at 43 percent followed by Republican Rudy Giuliani at 29 percent and Bloomberg at 16 percent.
The poll found Bloomberg pulling votes about equally from Clinton and Giuliani.
Asked about the mayor's decision as she left a Senate hearing Wednesday, Clinton said: "I'm not surprised that anyone would want to leave the Republican Party."
In 1992, Perot captured 19 percent of the popular vote as Democrat Bill Clinton seized the presidency from incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. Independent Ralph Nader played the spoiler in the 2000 race, taking votes from Democrat Al Gore in a disputed election won by George W. Bush.
Throughout his five years as mayor, Bloomberg often has been at odds with his party and Bush. He supports gay marriage, abortion rights, gun control and stem cell research and hiked property taxes to help solve a fiscal crisis after the Sept. 11 attacks.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)