Rep. Doug Ose, a top contender in the Republican race to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, abruptly dropped his exploratory effort Friday, underscoring the GOP's difficulty in finding viable candidates.
Ose's surprise decision touched off a flurry of speculation among Republicans about who else might mount a credible campaign against Boxer, the Democratic incumbent.
Ose, a Sacramento developer serving his third term in the House, was an early favorite for the GOP nomination. His main attractions were a moderate political profile and a personal fortune big enough to pay for statewide television ads.
For months, he has traveled around California laying groundwork for a Senate run. Aides were preparing a late spring tour of California for Ose to announce his candidacy. His chief of staff left the government payroll to work full time on his Senate exploratory committee.
But on Friday, Ose released an open letter telling supporters he had "come to the conclusion that this is not my time to seek higher office."
"I did not make my decision due to a lack of support or financial commitments, but because of my strong desire to be a good husband and father," said Ose, who has two daughters, ages 8 and 10.
His staff was stunned.
"I had the wind knocked out of me when he told me," said Marko Mlikotin, Ose's former chief of staff, who learned of his boss' decision Thursday.
Roy Behr, a Boxer political strategist, voiced doubts about Ose's rationale for bowing out of the race.
"It's clear the more the Republicans look at this race, the more they conclude that it's not winnable," he said. "Every potential first-tier candidate -- or even second-tier candidate -- has looked at this race and decided not to run, and it's because they realize that Boxer is in a very strong position politically, she's done a very good job and she'd be very hard to beat."
Another Republican wealthy enough to bankroll his own Senate campaign, Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, also was weighing a bid for Boxer's seat, but has shifted focus instead to a run for governor. Issa has put $100,000 into the petition drive for a special election to recall Democratic incumbent Gray Davis.
Republican Congressman George P. Radanovich of Mariposa also is exploring a Senate run. But Radanovich lacks the personal wealth of Ose or Issa. And his conservative profile could help him in the March 2 primary, but pose problems in the November 2004 general election, analysts say.
Others urged by Republicans to consider running against Boxer, but who have made no move to do so, include actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson.
The most recent Times Poll of California voters found that 47% support Boxer for reelection while 30% favor her yet-to-be-named Republican foe. Analysts give Republicans better odds of capturing seats in North Carolina, Georgia and several other states, suggesting that the Republican Party might see those areas as higher priorities for national money and attention.
In the last several elections, California has leaned heavily Democratic: Republicans lost every statewide race in November. California is by far the most expensive state in which to run a campaign, and Boxer expects to spend $15 million to $20 million on the race.
"The opportunity she presents to a Republican challenger is an attractive one, but the downside is the enormity of the state," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who has declined to run for Senate.
Still, GOP strategist Dan Schnur, an advisor to Radanovich, said Boxer will lack the huge boost she got in her two previous Senate races from strong top-of-the-ticket candidates: Bill Clinton in 1992 and Davis for governor in 1998.
Moreover, Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal members, will "have a much tougher time avoiding discussion of national security and defense issues while the country's fighting a war on terrorism," Schnur said.
Although Boxer opposed the war in Iraq, she has made a point as she ramps up her reelection effort to stress support for tough measures on homeland security. After a tour of the Port of Los Angeles last month, Boxer called for tighter screening of cargo containers to avert terrorist attacks.
Among the biggest unknown factors in the Senate race is whether the White House will anoint a favorite for the GOP nomination. President Bush's support for Richard Riordan last year in the GOP gubernatorial primary backfired when conservative Bill Simon Jr. trounced him.
A Bush administration official, U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin of Huntington Park, is considering a run for Boxer's Senate seat. Marin met this week with Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, to discuss the race, but secured no commitment of support, Republicans said.
A former Bush administration official, Toni Casey, has announced her candidacy, but the White House has given no sign of support to her either. Casey, a former mayor of Los Altos Hills in the Silicon Valley, was the Bush team's director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.