Democrat Bob Kerrey said Wednesday that he won't enter the Nebraska Senate primary, a blow to party members who saw Kerrey as their best chance to win the seat.
The former governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska cited family and unfinished plans at The New School university in New York, where he is president, in his decision not to run.
But "I got much closer to saying yes than I thought I would," Kerrey said.
"Bringing a voice of moderation in the Senate was very important to me," Kerrey said. "I'm very worried about the direction of the country. We're polarized on many issues."
Kerrey, 64, would have brought Washington connections and fundraising ability to the race to replace Republican Chuck Hagel, who announced in early September he wouldn't seek re-election.
Now that Kerrey is out, Democrats will likely turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, and if Fahey passes, Scott Kleeb, who lost the 3rd District Congressional race last year, has said he might jump in. Fahey said Wednesday he'll take the next few weeks to decide whether to run. Kleeb said he won't run against Fahey, and isn't ready to make a decision about a possible Senate bid. No other Democrats have declared.
Either man would face a tough general election. Former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns is seeking the Republican nomination after resigning last month as U.S. agriculture secretary, and state Attorney General Jon Bruning and Schuyler businessman Pat Flynn are also seeking the GOP nod.
Democrats have struggled in Nebraska, where Republicans enjoy a strong majority: In the November election, there were 573,016 Republicans registered, versus 370,724 Democrats.
The last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Democratic Senate candidates have fared better, including Kerrey and Ben Nelson, who holds Nebraska's other seat.
Steve Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said he's disappointed in Kerrey's decision but is certain the party will field a strong candidate.
"We're not going to cede the Senate race to Mike Johanns or Jon Bruning, I'll tell you that," Achelpohl said.
Kerrey has been president of New School since 2001.
As a political newcomer in Nebraska, Kerrey ousted Republican Gov. Charles Thone in 1982, then bypassed a bid for re-election to run for the U.S. Senate in 1988, soundly defeating Republican Sen. David Karnes. Kerrey launched an unsuccessful bid for president in 1991, withdrawing after running out of money and failing to win much support in any early 1992 primary except South Dakota.
He was re-elected to the Senate in 1994, then four years later surprised many when he decided not to run for president again, then stunned supporters again in 2000 when did not seek a third term in the Senate.
While leading the New School, Kerrey has remained politically active, and he served on the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He said his decision not to run doesn't mean he'll retire from political debates.
"My board does not object to me being politically involved," Kerrey said.
Kerrey has embraced New York and said he seriously considered running for mayor in 2005. His name also surfaced as a possible vice presidential candidate for 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.
A Vietnam War hero who lost part of his right leg in combat, Kerrey riled many when he spoke out against the Persian Gulf War. Even though a Democrat, he never hesitated to clash with members of his party, including President Clinton, who he ran against for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination and clashed with over the budget and other matters.
More recently, he has criticized Democrats for their haste to back out of the war in Iraq. Kerrey said he supported President Bush in attacking Iraq but has called the management of the postwar effort an "abomination."