NEW YORK (AP) _ New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday switched his party status from Republican to unaffiliated, a stunning move certain to be seen as a prelude to an independent presidential bid that would upend the 2008 race.
The billionaire former CEO, who was a lifelong Democrat before he switched to the GOP for his first mayoral run, said the change in voter registration does not mean he is running for president.
``Although my plans for the future haven't changed, I believe this brings my affiliation into alignment with how I have led and will continue to lead our city,'' he said.
Despite his repeated claims, the mayor's decision to switch his party affiliation stokes the speculation that he will pursue the White House, challenging the Democratic and Republican nominees with a legitimate and well-financed third-party bid.
Bloomberg has an estimated worth of more than $5 billion and easily could underwrite a White House run, much like businessman Ross H. Perot in 1992.
The 65-year-old mayor has fueled the buzz with increasing out-of-state travel, a greater focus on national issues and repeated criticism of the partisan politics that dominate Washington.
``The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, primarily at the federal level, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy,'' he said in a speech Monday at the start of a University of Southern California conference about the advantages of nonpartisan governing.
A Bloomberg entry would roil the already volatile and wide-open race to succeed President Bush.
``If he runs, this guarantees a Republican will be the next president of the United States. The Democrats have to be shaking in their boots,'' said Greg Strimple, a Republican strategist in New York who is unaligned in the race.
The belief among some operatives is that Bloomberg's moderate positions would siphon votes from the Democratic nominee. Others say it's not that cut and dry; they say whom he would draw from depends on the nominees.
Should Bloomberg enter the race, the number of New Yorkers who are serious contenders would rise to three. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic front-runner and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads the GOP field in national polls.
Throughout his 5 1/2 years as mayor, Bloomberg has often been at odds with his party and President Bush. He supports gay marriage, abortion rights, gun control and stem cell research, and raised property taxes to help solve a fiscal crisis after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But he never seemed willing to part with the GOP completely, raising money for the 2004 presidential convention and contributing to Bush and other Republican candidates.
Just last year, he told a group of Manhattan Republicans about his run for mayor: ``I couldn't be prouder to run on the Republican ticket and be a Republican.''
In 1992, Perot captured 19 percent of the popular vote as Bill Clinton seized the presidency from incumbent George H.W. Bush.