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Democrats take Bloomberg run seriously, but with skepticism about his chances

Michael Bloomberg’s flirtation with running as a Democrat for the White House has run into some understandable skepticism.

The former New York City mayor was once a Republican, and his defense of Wall Street and support for “stop and frisk” police policies would appear to make a candidacy before a Democratic primary electorate difficult at best.

More recently, Bloomberg in a September interview with The New York Times said the courts should decide on sexual harassment allegations against the former PBS host Charlie RoseCharles Peete RoseReport says ex-CBS executive Les Moonves 'deliberately lied' to investigators about allegations Democrats take Bloomberg run seriously, but with skepticism about his chances Harvey Weinstein accused of sexually assaulting 16-year-old girl: reports MORE, who broadcast his show from Bloomberg studios.

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Yet Democratic strategists say it would be foolish to not take a Bloomberg candidacy seriously.

They say the former New York mayor, 76, would be a formidable candidate with big ideas and the potential to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE in a general election if he chooses to run.

“In the past, he's been successful because he competed on the basis of big ideas,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “And that's where he is potentially able to differentiate himself: He's done a lot of these things already."

“Only a subset of people can talk about a 21st century economy and what it looks like based on personal experience,” he said. “A lot of people can talk the talk. He can walk the walk." 

Bloomberg's announcement this week that he is donating $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University in an effort to support low- and middle-income families is an example of a big idea, and Bloomberg's potential appeal to progressives, Democrats said. 

Robert Wolf, the former CEO of UBS and a longtime bundler to former President Obama, said a potential Bloomberg candidacy “aligns well with the Democratic platform.” 

He argued the New York billionaire has liberal views on a host of issues important to primary voters, and that he puts his money where his mouth is.

“I am a big fan of Mike Bloomberg and view his work on gun reform, climate change and educational aid for students as incredibly important issues,” said Wolf.

He also thinks Bloomberg’s profile could contrast well with some of the liberal candidates expected to enter the race.

“I also think there is a lane for a pro-growth Democrat to separate himself or herself from the likely more populist candidates,” he said. 

Democrats say Bloomberg will have to prove he’s in tune with the party's grass roots, and fight perceptions he’s a fickle or opportunistic politician prone to bouncing from party to party.

Bloomberg has backed Republicans, including the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Senate Armed Services chair eyes Russia, China threats | Pushes Trump not to cut defense budget | Mattis says US looking for more Khashoggi evidence Dem strategist says Trump should not have attended George H.W. Bush's funeral Inhofe eyes Russian, Chinese threats in first major speech as Armed Services chairman MORE (Ariz.) as well as Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House Judd Gregg: The last woman standing MORE (Maine) and Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingHouse Dems to introduce bill for background checks on all gun purchases or transfers: report Democrats take Bloomberg run seriously, but with skepticism about his chances Dem rep on Trump 'Adam Schitt' tweet: 'I feel like I'm back in seventh grade' MORE (N.Y.). 

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, formerly the executive director of the Democratic Party of New York, said Bloomberg has a path if he can do three things.

“Be the philanthropist not the billionaire; find a pathway to turn progressive policies like affordable college into a reality without letting them become the dog whistles of the left as ‘the wall’ has become on the right, and he’ll have to fully and head-on address policies that some activists may have objected to while he was mayor,” Smikle said

Bloomberg — who switched to the Democratic Party last month — already won some support from Democrats during the midterm elections when his super PAC, Independence USA PAC, poured nearly $110 million across 24 House races in suburban districts. Out of the 24 districts, 21 of the candidates he backed won.

In the final days leading up to Election Day, voters heading to the polls in competitive districts saw a two minute ad urging them to support Democrats. 

“I’ve never been a particularly partisan person. I’ve supported candidates from both sides,” Bloomberg said in the spot. “But at this moment, we must send a signal to Republicans in Washington that they have failed to lead, failed to find solutions and failed to bring us together. That’s why I’m voting Democratic.” 

Some Democrats aren’t convinced that Bloomberg can pull it off. 

“The Democratic Party will never nominate a former Republican mayor who now happens to be a progressive billionaire, not with this likely field and not with the direction the party is now taking,” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “Put differently, Democrats are not as easily bought as Republicans.” 

Still, on the heels of the midterm elections, the question of whether Bloomberg could lure progressives to his corner highlights a bigger debate within the Democratic Party that remains largely unanswered: Which direction is the party headed?

“There still isn’t clarity on what is the best way for the Democratic Party to position itself to face Republicans generally and Donald Trump specifically,” said Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, adding that there are good arguments to be made on both sides. “I still don’t think it’s clear. And Bloomberg himself is unclear.” 

Reeher said Bloomberg will likely face some difficulty in early states, where his New York City roots may not translate. 

“The question is, Can he walk into a diner in Iowa and connect with voters?” Reeher said.  “It might be a challenge.”