CBS chief Les Moonves' (search) reference to Dan Rather (search) in the past tense has sparked rumors that Rather could be leaving CBS — maybe even before his contract expires in January.

"I'm very fond of Dan. Dan's terrific. He had a long, illustrious career at CBS, and let's not forget that," Moonves told The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to questions about last fall's "Memogate" mess, which resulted in Rather's early departure from the "CBS Evening News" (search) anchor desk.

Moonves' use of the word "had" has re-ignited talk that Rather, a 43-year CBS veteran, will leave for another network, according to the industry site tvnewser.com.

"Dan fully intends to fulfill his contract at CBS and expects to be there beyond January," Rather's agent, Richard Leibner, told The Post Monday.

Industry sources say that Rather is not currently looking for another job, nor has he been told by CBS that they're going to let him out of his contract.

He also has not been offered a buyout by the network, sources say.

Rather stepped down from the "Evening News" desk after 24 years last March in the wake of the "Memogate" (search) scandal — in which a "60 Minutes II" broadcast, anchored by Rather, used unsubstantiated documents in a story on President Bush's National Guard service.

The scandal resulted in the firing of the report's producer, Mary Mapes (search), and the resignation of three high-ranking CBS News execs, including "60 II" executive producer Josh Howard.

Rather was re-assigned to "60 Minutes" (search) as a correspondent shortly thereafter.

"Dan is very much a part of next season's '60 Minutes,'" a CBS News spokeswoman said Monday.

The Post's Cindy Adams reported last November that Rather could eventually be headed for CNN — which wooed him for a prime-time newscast back in 1997.

Rather has appeared numerous times on CNN's "Larry King Live."

A CNN spokeswoman said that Rather is "not in negotiations" with the network.