The already topsy-turvy race for the White House took on an even more complicated hue last night amid fresh signs that Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire Mayor of New York, may quietly be accelerating preparations to enter as an independent candidate.
Speculation about a possible Bloomberg candidacy has been reignited by confirmation from his aides that he will be a star guest at a conference of both Democrat and Republican elder statesmen at the University of Oklahoma next Sunday to call for an end to bipartisan gridlock and bickering in Washington.
The event will take place between the caucuses in Iowa and primary voting in New Hampshire, which together will kick off the process of picking the presidential nominees for the general election in November.
With Iowans preparing to register their preferences on Thursday, none of the candidates from either of the main parties seems yet to have gained convincing appeal. Polls continue to suggest that the race is wide open for the runners in both parties with no predicting who among them will eventually pull ahead.
Mr Bloomberg, 65, can still bide his time. The bureaucracy of filing for an independent run begins first in Texas, where signatures must be gathered to get on the ballot, but not until March. That probably gives him until the end of February before he needs to decide whether to plunge in.
By then, the identities of the Democrat and Republican nominees should be known. The greater the ideological divide between them the widest might be, for example, between the Democrat Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee for the Republicans the more tempted Mr Bloomberg would be to run.
The Oklahoma gathering is billed as an occasion to pressure candidates from both parties to show a commitment to consensus government in Washington. Organisers have conceded, however, that if they fail to respond, they may shift strategy to begin supporting a candidate from outside both parties.
"Some of us might well be open to encouraging an independent candidacy if the two parties don't meet their responsibilities," confirmed David Boren, the president of Oklahoma University and former US senator who will be the host. Mr Bloomberg "would be one person who should be seriously considered".
Mr Bloomberg has publicly denied eyeing the presidency. But his coyness is not entirely convincing, as he has increasingly travelled beyond New York to high-profile events in the US and abroad, most recently to the climate change talks in Bali.
It has been widely reported, moreover, that his senior aides have quietly been building the foundations for a putative presidential run, including lining up high-profile consultants who they may try to recruit to his camp.
Among other grandees expected at the Oklahoma meeting are Chuck Hagel, the outgoing Democrat senator from Nebraska, and Sam Nunn, the former Republican senator from Georgia. Both have been mentioned as possible running mates with Mr Bloomberg on an independent ticket.
"Our political system is, at the very least, badly bent and many are concluding that it is broken at a time where America must lead boldly at home and abroad," Messrs Nunn and Boren said in a joint letter released ahead of the meeting. "Partisan polarisation is preventing us from uniting to meet the challenges that we must face if we are to prevent further erosion of America's power of leadership and example."
As founder of the news and financial data service Bloomberg LP, the Mayor is flush with cash and would reportedly be ready to spend about $1bn on running without the distraction of needing to raise additional funds. Historically, however, independent quests for the White House have been quixotic.
"Normally I don't think an independent candidacy would have a chance," Mr Boren said, but he added: "I don't think these are normal times." For now, however, Mr Boren is endorsing no one. "This is not a Bloomberg for president meeting," he insisted.
Mr Bloomberg switched from Democrat to Republican to run for Mayor of New York and then became an independent last year. He will probably decide to run only if he believes he has a realistic chance of winning a tall order whatever the times. Otherwise, he runs the risk of going down as a spoiler rather as Ralph Nader did after running as a Green candidate in 2000 and robbing Al Gore of crucial Democrat votes.
Also eyeing Mr Bloomberg is a group called Unity 08, headed by the actor Sam Waterston and dedicated to supporting a non-partisan ticket next year. "It's hard to think of anyone better placed to win Unity08's support," he told The New York Times in reply to a question about Mr Bloomberg.Reuse content