In his first public comments since the death of his wife of nearly 69 years, Sen. Robert C. Byrd pledged Thursday to continue his campaign for a record ninth term.

"I'm doing exactly what Erma would want," the 88-year-old Democrat told The Associated Press. "That gives me more strength. You can bet that strength will be there."

Erma Ora James Byrd died March 25 at age 88 after battling an illness for five years.

Byrd called her "the perfect wife of a senator" and recalled how he often sought her advice during his campaigns.

"She was my best counselor, my greatest confidante and my trusted helpmate and companion. Always."

Supporters were worried about the impact of his wife's death on the senator, whose own health has been a concern.

Byrd has had trembling in his hands for several years, which he dismisses as a "cosmetic malady."

"I have a problem, but it's not upstairs. It's not in my head," Byrd said Thursday. "I don't run a foot race as I used to be able to, but you can bet that I can run this race."

Byrd said he was thankful for the outpouring of support from West Virginians in the wake of his wife's death. Those offering condolences included several of the six Republicans vying to challenge him in November.

Byrd faces a little-known challenger in the May 9 Democratic primary. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee has made toppling Byrd an overriding goal.

West Virginia's senior senator has become a leading critic of President Bush on Iraq, budget policies and other issues.

Byrd is on track to become the longest-serving senator in U.S. history in June.