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Bloomberg tests the water - but will he stand?

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire Mayor of New York, can't say it often enough: no, he is not positioning himself for an independent run at the White House. Funny then, that he keeps taking steps that seem to suggest otherwise, most recently eliciting research from all 50 states on his chances of winning.

Just as results from the first two nominating contests for the two establishment parties, Democrats and Republicans, flowed in from Iowa and New Hampshire, sources close to Mr Bloomberg revealed that he was spending millions discreetly polling voters across the country on how they might view him. It will be seen as just one more sign that whatever he may say publicly, Mr Bloomberg is at least still considering a dive into the 2008 contest for the presidency. The remarkable volatility of the race so far may encourage him to move forward.

On Monday, he attended a panel of centrist political grandees from both parties at the University of Oklahoma. Last year, he re-nounced his membership of the Republican Party, with which he is at odds on social issues such as gay rights, and established himself as an independent.

Sources say that though most of the polling data has been gathered, analysis of it has not yet begun. Questions he asks include the degree to which voters would prefer to see a long-time lawmaker take the White House versus outsiders with business pedigrees such as himself. He may also be wondering how far people will be fussed by his religion. Mr Bloomberg is Jewish.

"You have to look at how electorate breaks, how Democrats and Republicans vote, how independents vote," said Douglas Schoen, a former political strategist for the Mayor. "You have to know what the lay of the land is, you have to try to look at every available piece of data."

Mr Bloomberg, who has an estimated worth of about $11.5bn (£5.8bn) mostly drawn from the financial data and news service he founded, Bloomberg LP, has repeatedly said he intends serving out his second term as Mayor, then focusing on his considerable philanthropic efforts.

"I am not a candidate for being president of the United States," he said. "31 December, 2009, I'll have my last day at City Hall. On 1 January, 2010, I will go to the inauguration of my successor. On 2 January, 2010, I'll take my mother out to dinner for what will be her 101st birthday. Then a life of philanthropy I think is what is going to happen." A poll of New York City residents by Quinnipiac University this week offered mixed news. A small majority thought he would make a good president and thought he would run, but only 34 per cent said they would vote for him.

The process of getting on the ballot as an independent would kick off in Texas after early March. This gives him a few more weeks to ponder and rake through his data. With luck, the Republicans and Democrats will by then also have picked their own nominees, though that is not certain.

For those despairing of the bipartisan atmosphere of Washington, Mr Bloom-berg is an alluring alternative. It helps also that he has money of his own to run a full-blown campaign.