Veteran Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings (search) of South Carolina announced Monday he will not seek re-election next year.

"It's time I go out and work and make a living," Hollings told supporters at Columbia's National Advocacy Center, which is named after him.

"It's not that we're quittin' — we've got a good year and a half's work" left to do.

Hollings' announcement marks the end of an era, say admirers.

"Senator Hollings' leaving will be a great loss for the U.S. Senate," said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a fellow Democrat. "He's admired on both sides of the aisle and his now accumulated knowledge and experience about our national and international affairs is a very valuable repository for the United States."

"I believe history will report that Fritz Hollings was the best and most effective senator in our state's history," Riley said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was among the first in the Senate to acknowledge Hollings' departure.

"I am sad to hear of the retirement of my dear colleague Fritz Hollings," McCain said. "His service to both his state and our country made a real difference, and Fritz will be missed.”

Hollings' retirement gives Republicans a strong opportunity to pick up a southern seat in their bid to maintain control of the Senate in 2004.

Republicans are hoping to pick up the seat being vacated by Georgia's Zell Miller. Republican Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald has also announced his retirement. The GOP currently holds the Senate 51-48 with one independent.

One expert suggested that Hollings' decision derived in part from his age — he turns 82 on Jan. 1 — and in part from his recognition of the political numbers in his home state of South Carolina, which elected a Republican governor and senator in November.

"It's one of the more Republican of southern states and Sen. Hollings was re-elected by 50-47 in 1992 and by 53-46 in 1998. Those are both unambiguous margins. They're not huge margins and he would have had a serious race," said political analyst Michael Barone.

A World War II combat veteran, Hollings was elected as a state legislator, lieutenant governor and governor, the last of which he became at age 36. He oversaw the peaceful desegregation of his state's schools, something other southern governors at the time resisted.

Hollings was first elected to the Senate to fill an unexpired term in 1966, and won re-election two years later and every six years since. But Hollings remained the state's junior senator until the January retirement of the late Strom Thurmond. As a junior senator, however, he drew considerable distinction for his low-country drawl, persistent efforts to attack federal deficits and care in tending to issues of interest in his home state.

He also has a sharp tongue, which he has occasionally wielded against Republicans and Democrats alike.

"Clinton's as popular as AIDS in South Carolina," he was quoted as saying at the time the former president's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was front-page news.

In the Senate, Hollings distinguished himself as a deficit hawk, sponsoring balanced-budget legislation, and he helped author the law that governs telecommunications in this country.

He also battled relentlessly against a series of trade bills that he said would ship job overseas, damaging South Carolina's textile and other industries.

Several Republicans have already begun campaigning for the seat, including three-term Rep. Jim DeMint (search), former state attorney general Charlie Condon (search) and Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel (search). The State newspaper also lists Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride (search) as a possible contender.

Inez Tenenbaum (search), the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, who won her second term with the most votes of any state candidate in the 2002 election, said Monday that she is seriously considering a run for Hollings' seat but has not yet made a decision.

Hollings said he would back a Democratic candidate as his replacement, but would not endorse anyone before a primary.

Fox News' Jim Angle, James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.