New York Gov. George E. Pataki, the nation's longest-serving governor, announced Wednesday that he would not seek a fourth term, a move widely believed to set the stage for a possible 2008 presidential bid.
Pataki, a Republican, supports abortion rights and backs gun control laws. He recently tested the campaign waters with appearances in Iowa, site of the nation's first presidential caucus.
He was scheduled to meet in Manhattan late Wednesday with longtime fundraisers to discuss the formation of a presidential exploratory committee.
Pataki's decision not to run again next year was more good news for New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who had announced his candidacy for governor. Spitzer opened a wide lead over Pataki in public opinion polls; the governor's approval rating slipped this year to 41%, his lowest ever.
"There is always more to do, but I've learned that elected officials are only temporary stewards of the people's trust," Pataki, 60, told hundreds of supporters at the Capitol in Albany. "In the meantime, we're going to keep this state moving forward."
The governor, accompanied by his wife, Libby, and their four children, said that under his leadership, New York had experienced job growth, expanded high-tech industries, passed open-space initiatives and reduced crime.
His announcement, which had been expected, creates problems and opportunities for New York Republican leaders. The party had pressed Pataki to decide about a fourth term because it had no clear front-runner to take on Spitzer.
The GOP also faces a tough race next year against Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking a second term. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a potentially strong GOP candidate, has said he has no interest in running for governor or senator; he plans to focus on a possible presidential run in 2008.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican, has also said he has no interest in running for governor. Several other Republican names have surfaced, including Westchester County Dist. Atty. Jeanine Pirro, New York Secretary of State Randy A. Daniels and millionaire businessman Thomas Golisano. Former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, who moved back to his native New York, has said he might consider the race.
Pataki rose to national prominence in 1995, when he dethroned Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a Democrat and three-term incumbent.
Pataki had been a mayor, state senator and assemblyman from Peekskill, N.Y. -- a town on the Hudson River north of New York City.
He won the governor's race with political and financial help from then-Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. Pataki vowed during the campaign to trim spending and spur major economic development. State budgets grew during his later terms, and upstate New York continues to suffer from economic stagnation.
Pataki holds conservative views on government spending and law enforcement, but he has solicited support from labor unions to win reelection in a state where there are 5 million Democratic voters and 3 million Republicans.
"George Pataki did what many considered to be impossible, not once but three times," New York GOP Chairman Stephen J. Minarik said in a statement.
Some political observers said Wednesday that Pataki's chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination was a longshot, given his moderate to liberal views on key social issues.
"He'll raise the money, but I can't see where the votes would come from," said Joseph Mercurio, a New York political consultant who has worked for both parties.
"His record would be picked apart by other Republicans, and it's not enough that he might do well with suburban women," Mercurio said. "You wouldn't expect Pataki to do well with religious or rural voters, and that's key in any GOP race."