Bill Bradley, the widely respected New Jersey Democrat who this week announced his retirement from the Senate, yesterday held out the prospect of an independent run for the presidency. He said he had been in touch with General Colin Powell, who is expected soon to make clear his own White House intentions.
Declaring he still considered himself a Democrat, Mr Bradley confirmed he would not challenge President Bill Clinton for the party's nomination. "But I have not ruled out an independent route," he told a Newark press conference in words that only add to uncertainty over the line-up for the 1996 election.
The 52-year-old former basketball star and Rhodes scholar indicated he planned a series of public meetings, "to see what happens". Although he was not "at this point" thinking of an independent candidacy, he would consider it "if it would help get the country back in the right direction".
According to Mr Bradley, Gen Powell was just one of 120 people he contacted about his decision not to seek a fourth term. "I called him to let him know what I was doing," Mr Bradley said without elaboration, adding that he had unsuccessfully tried to contact Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who staged the best showing by an independent in 80 years.
Whether made from courtesy or some deeper motive, the mere fact of such calls will increase speculation of a concerted independent candidacy for the White House, to tap into a public discontent which polls show is greater even than in 1992, when the eccentric and egotistical Mr Perot won 19 per cent of the vote. There was even speculation yesterday that Mr Bradley and Messrs Perot and Powell might be planning to join forces in an independent campaign next year.
"The little people and the middle-class are frustrated and feel left out of the system," Mr Bradley declared yesterday, in language that could just as easily have issued from Mr Perot. "There is real fear among millions of people over their future.''
Polls have shown that up to 50 per cent of voters would welcome other choices on the ballot paper next year, especially if the big party candidates are Mr Clinton and Bob Dole, the Senate Majority leader and current Republican front-runner. "I can do more good by being outside the system than inside it," Mr Bradley insisted.
Despite his relative youth, generally admiring press coverage and his acknowledged expertise on issues ranging from Russia to race relations, Mr Bradley would have serious handicaps if he did make a White House run, whether next year or - as many believe more likely - in 2000. He is one of the least electrifying speakers in US politics, while his popularity in New Jersey at least has been ebbing to the point where he might have lost his seat had he run in 1996.
His departure, however, ensures it will be tougher than ever for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate, where the Republicans have a 54-46 majority.