Former CNN host Lou Dobbs fueled already rampant speculation about his political future Monday, sending the clearest signals yet that he's mulling a bid for president - and leaving third-party political operatives salivating over the possibility of a celebrity recruit for the 2012 campaign.
Less than two weeks after announcing his departure from the cable network - and after a series of interviews in which Dobbs encouraged speculation about his political plans - the anchorman known to fans as "Mr. Independent" finally made his presidential ambitions explicit on former Sen. Fred Thompson's radio show Monday.
Asked if he might make a run at the White House in 2012, Dobbs answered flatly: "Yes is the answer."
"I'm going to be talking some more with some folks who want me to listen in the next few weeks," Dobbs told Thompson. "Right now I'm fortunate to have a number of wonderful options."
Dobbs's political future, however, remains shrouded in question marks. He has left open a variety of paths to public office - in addition to toying with a presidential campaign, Dobbs hasn't ruled out a bid for the Senate in 2012 in New Jersey - and also left his party affiliation a mystery.
A representative for Dobbs said his schedule did not permit him to comment for this story by deadline.
Though Dobbs's criticism of the Obama administration and his famously conservative views on illegal immigration have raised the prospect he could run for office as a Republican, he has staked out a rhetorical position that places him outside both parties. In 2007, he penned a book titled, "Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit," and in his final CNN broadcast, Dobbs took broad aim at a political culture "defined in the public arena by partisanship and ideology rather than by rigorous, empirical thought and forthright analysis and discussion."
After two consecutive presidential cycles in which independent contenders had virtually no impact at the polls, independent political strategists are delighted at the prospect of a third-party campaign for the White House headlined by a high-profile, TV-friendly candidate with the potential to scramble the national political map.
"I would assume he's going independent, since he's made a very strong case that that's where he is," said Bay Buchanan, who ran Pat Buchanan's 2000 campaign for president as the Reform Party's candidate. "There's enormous movement out there, I think more so than when Pat ran. I think they've really given up on Republicans, they've given up on Democrats; so he would be stepping into something where a path had been laid."
Buchanan added: "I think he can win."
Even independent political operatives less ideologically aligned with Dobbs - Buchanan, like Dobbs, is an immigration hawk - say he represents an enormous opportunity for foes of the two-party system.
"Lou Dobbs, I think, would be a perfect candidate for us," said former Sen. Dean Barkley, the founder of the Minnesota Reform Party (later known as the Minnesota Independence Party) who managed former Gov. Jesse Ventura's successful third-party campaign in 1998. "We were hoping he would have run last time."
The notion of a cable news personality running for high office seems less far-fetched one year after former comedian and liberal talk-radio host Al Franken upset expectations by defeating an incumbent Republican senator in Minnesota, and after television stars such as MSNBC's Chris Matthews explored running for office and Fox's Glenn Beck leaped directly into political activism. Indeed, operatives say, Dobbs's talent for communicating with a national audience could serve him well as an outsider candidate.
"You know he's got a pretty good sensibility with an audience," said media consultant Bill Hillsman, who worked on third-party campaigns for Ventura and gubernatorial candidates Kinky Friedman in Texas and Chris Daggett in New Jersey.
"There aren't too many people who you can say have that particular skill on a national basis, if you're looking at independents," said Hillsman, who said he urged Dobbs in a letter to run as an independent candidate in New Jersey's 2009 gubernatorial election.
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Still, even with his star power, there could be serious limits to the appeal of a candidate best known for his opposition to immigration reform and his indulgence of conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
While Dobbs's views on immigration might get him a toehold with some constituencies, there's little modern evidence that opposition to immigration can power a national campaign. In order to have a shot at gaining traction nationally, Dobbs would have to tap into populist anger on a broader range of issues, according to Clay Mulford, who managed Ross Perot's presidential campaign in 1992.
"There's a populist streak in the voting public that spans both left and right, and so you've got the combination of this protectionist element and immigration on one hand, on the right. And on the left you've got this anti-bailout, Wall Street, focus-on-Main Street kind of sentiment," Mulford said. "That streak in American politics is something that's often ignored."
But Mulford, whom New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg consulted in 2008 about a possible independent presidential bid of his own, also poured some cold water on the Dobbs-for-President talk, noting that even a charismatic television personality would face a tough adjustment to the campaign trail.
Dobbs would encounter daunting structural obstacles to fundraising and a patchwork of ballot-access laws that tilt the playing field against any third-party contender. On top of that, Mulford said, Dobbs's hard-line views on immigration might restrict his national appeal in "a country of immigrants."
"The Electoral College makes it, unless you're going to really be at the 30 percent level and go from there, it's a hard slog, nationwide," Mulford warned. "Without some really substantive positions, given his lack of experience, a national effort would be difficult."
And for all the talk of a presidential campaign, Dobbs has yet to contact leading third-party operatives such as Buchanan, Hillsman, Mulford or Ed Rollins, the Perot campaign veteran who shared Dobbs's affiliation with CNN until the anchor quit this month, the operatives said.
Given the hurdles Dobbs would have to clear in order to run nationally, Democrats in his home state of New Jersey are responding seriously to Dobbs's hints about a Senate campaign.
"I assume he'd be a formidable candidate in terms of his skills and his ability to raise funds or self-fund," said a Democratic consultant based in New Jersey. "None of us are sitting around going, 'Oh, that's a joke.'"
At the same time, the Democrat said, Dobbs would be hampered from the first day of a Senate campaign by the optics of running as a border security hard-liner against the Senate's lone Hispanic.
"He's probably out of the mainstream on a bulk of issues. He's going to have a particularly delicate time running against the Senate's only Latino member. He certainly has no infrastructure on which to build in New Jersey," the consultant said. "I don't sense that anyone is sitting around going, 'Lou Dobbs is the next big thing.'"
Even as independents look eagerly forward to a possible Dobbs campaign - for president or another office - Republicans have responded much more warily to suggestions that Dobbs, a resident of Sussex County, could run for Senate on the GOP ticket in 2012.
"I don't think people know whether he'd run as a Republican and also don't know where he stands on anything but immigration," said a Republican strategist from New Jersey.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told POLITICO: "It's not even on our radar screen. Neither New Jersey senator is up in 2010, and 2010 is where our sole focus is right now."