Image New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. Mr. Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until he became a Republican in 2001, thus vaulting himself into the New York mayor's race. He won the general election against NYC Public Advocate Mark Green and took office just four months after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Governing as a "conservative" (or what passes for one in New York) on taxes and fiscal policy, while leaning liberal on social issues, Mr. Bloomberg capitalized on Rudolph Giuliani's success and easily won re-election in 2005. His second (and final) term will end in January 2010.

A multi-billionaire who got rich selling financial information terminals to Wall Street firms, Mr. Bloomberg has indicated that he might spend $500 million of his personal fortune to run for president, if the situation warrants it. In recent statements he downplayed this, joking that there were already two New Yorkers in the current field. But there seems to be no other obvious reason for the affable, non-aligned politician to switch parties at this time. (Perhaps it's just a precaution. If "W" invades New York, it would be embarrassing to be a Republican.)

Analysts are debating whether Mr. Bloomberg would help Democrats or Republicans most, if he runs. One can argue either way, but I believe he will help the Democratic candidate by drawing socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters away from the GOP. They will prefer Mr. Bloomberg to a GOP candidate who might share the conservative social views of his party's base. Should the eventual GOP candidate also be a social liberal, Mr. Bloomberg will probably not run. This is probably what his vague declaration of intent means.

It is impossible to prove that either Bill or Hillary Clinton is connected to Mr. Bloomberg's emergence as a possible independent candidate for 2008. But it is certainly a remarkable "coincidence". His appearance does not surprise this commentator. For some time I have expected the appearance of a Clinton "insurance policy" without knowing whence it might come. Now - mirabile dictu - another five-foot-seven billionaire has arrived to fill the role.

Ross Perot was Clinton Insurance Policy I, of course. Millions of voters are too young to recall how Republicans and "Reagan Democrats" were drawn by Mr. Perot's fiscally conservative message in 1992, after George H. W. Bush fumbled the Reagan handoff. Mr. Perot's 19% share  - mostly voters who had supported Mr. Bush in 1988 - was more than enough to hand Bill Clinton a surprise win, with just 43% of the vote. To ensure another Clinton "landslide" in 1996, Mr. Perot came out of mothballs to run again. Entering the race around July ‘96, he still pulled an 8.7% share. Mr. Clinton carried 49% of the vote, and Mr. Dole 41%.

The big difference then was that Mr. Perot announced his candidacy late in both races, catching Republicans off guard and giving them little time to contend with (or adopt) his fiscal proposals. Mr. Bloomberg's much earlier appearance will change that political calculus, perhaps making his candidacy less problematic to Republicans than Mr. Perot's was. However, Mr. B will still be attractive for socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters. He is a serious factor.

Political sophistication also plays in this equation. Democrats rarely go for a third party candidate - even one who seems to offer what they like on both social and fiscal issues. They are too smart for that, knowing that their defection might cost their party the election. Republicans seem to lack such scruples or savvy. "My vote will make a statement," is what I heard from folks who were mad at George H. W. Bush for breaking his "no new taxes" pledge in 1990. Great. Their "stand on principle" let Bill and Hill sneak in the back door twice. I heard no apologies, later, as mega-scandals broke over Bill Clinton and reduced his second term to rubble.

An independent like Perot or Bloomberg is the joker in the campaign deck because each is basically his own party, not just the leader of one. (This is doubly true of billionaires, whose wealth gets them used to piping the tune and seeing others dance.) No position papers, grassroots regulars or party platforms keep an independent from springing, at a moment's notice, to fill any space he sees between the two parties. Such a space, in this volatile era, is illegal immigration. Neither party currently is disposed to answer the concerns of a majority of the electorate on it.

In December 2004 I predicted that illegal immigration would become the dark horse of future elections (1), and that some candidate would ride in on that horse to capture the space left vacant by the major parties. I thought Hillary Clinton might be that candidate, as she appeared to be positioning herself "conservative" on illegal immigration.

Since that time, however, the war and the emergence of Barak Obama have intervened. Mrs. Clinton is slugging it out with Barak Obama and John Edwards for the far-left "soul" of their party, and all three seem aligned with the immigration "reform" coalition led by President Bush and Senator Kennedy. Voter-concerns about illegal immigration remain unanswered.

A fiscally conservative candidate who understands and speaks to voters' fears about illegal immigration would be formidable. His occupation of the political space on this issue would throw the game-board in the air. He might not only perturb the election. He might win it, turning the Clinton "insurance policy" into a thief in the night who runs off with the family silver.

I don't know if Mr. Bloomberg  possesses the political daring to oppose liberals, seize the illegals issue, and exploit it to win the election. It all depends on how smart he is, how big his ego is, and how much he wants to be president. Also, perhaps illegal immigration is not as hot, nationally, as the present climate makes it appear.

All of this will be clarified a year from now when the battle lines have been drawn for the most significant presidential contest in a generation. It will determine the future of the country for decades to come. Quite possibly, none of the present leading candidates will end up in the general election.

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(1) "Hillary on the Move", Dec. 2004. http://www.ahherald.com/atlarge/2004/041230_hillary.htm