New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the nation's most prominent political independent, remained coy on Friday in the Twin Cities about his preference in the presidential race.

Republican officials had hinted that Bloomberg would insert himself into the campaign with a quasi-endorsement of GOP nominee John McCain.

Not exactly.

Instead, Bloomberg offered qualified praise for both McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

"We are lucky this year -- we have two candidates who I think have shown on at least some issues they are capable of thinking and acting independently of the special interests," said Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent.

He praised Obama for his stands on gun control and maintaining the federal gasoline tax. He said McCain has "buck[ed] the ideologues and party leaders on immigration, campaign finance reform and global warming."

Bloomberg visited the Twin Cities with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, to rally support for federal investment in the nation's infrastructure. They, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, are co-chairs of a national infrastructure advocacy group.

The New York mayor spoke Friday morning to about 100 people at a breakfast gathering of the Independence Party of Minnesota. They heard him call for an end to public financing of primary elections that leave independent voters "out in the cold."

He also told independents that they need to learn to vote as a bloc. "We have to start demonstrating to the candidates that we have what they need more than anything else, and that is votes," he said. "To win our votes, they don't need to adopt any one particular position. They just have to convince us that they are committed to rejecting party orthodoxies and ideologies."

Speaking afterward to reporters, Bloomberg said he hasn't yet decided which of the major party presidential candidates -- if either -- he will ultimately endorse.

In a later interview, he said he would vote for one of the two major candidates and "will work very hard right up til the end to get both of them to say explicitly what they would do and how they would do it."

Veep speculation

On another subject that has been popular lately, Rendell said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could strengthen the GOP ticket as McCain's running mate.

"I worked closely with him," said Rendell, who this month succeeded Pawlenty as chairman of the National Governors Association. "He can be a good coalition builder ... [and he's a] very bright guy as well."

On the issue that brought him to Minnesota, Rendell said the nation is facing an infrastructure crisis that threatens public safety, quality of life and economic competitiveness. He said the federal government should launch a comprehensive program to improve and manage aging roads, bridges and other public works through higher gas taxes, user fees and public-private partnerships. • 612-673-7184 612-673-4455