ST. LOUIS — ST. LOUIS -- Sen. John Danforth, 56, the father of the modern Republican Party in Missouri, says he will not seek re-election next year.
"Public service, however enjoyable, is only a part of life," the lawmaker said yesterday. "It has been important for me to see it that way. I do not want to cling to it as though my whole identity is decided by elections, for it is not."
Mr. Danforth's announcement was one of the best-kept secrets in recent Missouri politics, shocking some of his supporters and kicking over a hive of potential candidates.
While former Gov. John Ashcroft dominates any GOP list of candidates, state Democratic Chairman
Gene Bushmann rattled off several prospects, headed by U.S. Rep. Alan Wheat of Kansas City.
A three-term senator, Mr. Danforth said he had no intention of being pried out of office like a snail off a rock or of being carried out feet first.
"Just as my public life had a beginning, so I have always wanted it to have a self-determined end," he said. "Next year, that end will come."
He said he was not bowing out of public life after 26 years because of discouragement, but because he wants to give more time to his family, his ordination as an Episcopal priest and the private practice of law.
"There is a short answer to the question: Why now instead of trying for another term?" Mr. Danforth said. "I would rather start a new phase of life when I am 58 than when I am 64."
Of his remaining two years in the U.S. Senate, he said: "I am determined to make them the best years of my public life."
As one of the senior Republicans in the Senate, he pledged to be an active national voice in the debates over the reform of health care, the deficit and the U.S. airline industry.
Mr. Danforth, an Ivy League lawyer, became the first Republican elected to Missouri statewide office in modern times when, as a 32-year-old reformer, he surprised Democrats by winning election as state attorney general in 1968.
In that office, he hired many of the Republicans who later went on to carve out places of their own in politics: Mr. Ashcroft; Sen. Kit Bond, the junior senator from Missouri; and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Former Democratic Sen. Tom Eagleton said yesterday he was "stunned and saddened" by Mr. Danforth's decision.
"I think he's one of the greatest senators Missouri has ever had," Mr. Eagleton said.