It is the end of a conservative era.

After three decades in office, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms announced that, although he remains loyal to the conservative cause, he will not seek re-election to a sixth term in the Senate in 2002.

"I am by no means announcing my retirement because a great deal of work lies ahead of the United States Senate this fall, and next year, when there will be much significant legislation," he said.

The 79-year-old Republican made the announcement Wednesday in a broadcast from Raleigh, N.C.'s WRAL-TV, where his fiery editorials helped build support for his 1972 election to the Senate.

Helms quoted a Democrat, the late Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., in saying time had taken its toll.

"I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term," he said. "This, my family and I decided unanimously, I should not do - and, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not."

Potential successors have been exploring bids to replace the senator long before his plans became public.

Earlier this week, a group of Republicans announced they were trying to persuade Elizabeth Dole to run. The former labor secretary and head of the Red Cross was born and raised in North Carolina.

"Senator Helms' decision to retire in 2003 signals the end of an era in our state," she said. "He has been a relentless watchdog with a strong commitment to North Carolina and our nation."

Other Republicans considering a Senate bid include Rep. Richard Burr , former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and Lexington lawyer Jim Snyder.

Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said national GOP officials clearly see Dole as the best candidate to keep Helms' seat in Republican hands.

So far, the only Democrat to enter the race is Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt reiterated Wednesday night that he will not seek the seat.

During his years in the Senate, Helms became known as "Senator No," blocking legislation he opposed with all means at his disposal. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he helped place sanctions against communist regimes and blocked the payment of U.S. dues to the United Nations.

He also became an icon to social conservatives, advocating a return to prayer in the classroom and condemning "the homosexual agenda."

The conservative firebrand frustrated presidents and agitated liberals, and on the eve of his announcement, he was both praised and condemned.

"I guess the 19th century is over now," quipped Sam Watts, a North Carolina-based Democratic pollster.

Republicans said Helms will be hard to replace.

"Senator Helms by virtue of his rigid, inflexible stances on many issues is perceived by many as uncaring and insensitive," said Rep. Howard Coble. "I think that belies the truth. I think Senator Helms is a man of principle."

President Bush praised Helms as "a tireless defender of our nation's freedom and a champion of democracy abroad."

Helms, who had taped the address, headed to his vacation home on Lake Gaston, north of Raleigh, to watch the broadcast with his wife, Dorothy.

People close to him said for weeks relatives had been urging him not to seek re-election. Helms has had years of health problems, affecting his heart, legs and balance, and he had both knees replaced in 1998 and has since used a motorized scooter.

Helms' departure will force the GOP to defend another open seat in its bid to recapture the Senate, where Democrats hold a 50-49 majority, with one independent.

Republicans are defending 20 Senate seats in 2002, including the one held by 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who has said he will not seek re-election. Democrats are defending 14.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.