WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Party suffered another demoralizing blow yesterday with the decision by Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, one of the party's brightest stars, to retire next year after three terms.
Mr. Bradley, 52, becomes the sixth Democratic senator to announce that he is stepping down next year. At least one and possibly two others are considering retirement, thus raising a realistic possibility that the Republicans can win the 60 seats they need to prevent Democratic filibusters in the next Congress.
Although they tried to remain positive in their public comments, Democratic leaders and White House political advisers have long since given up hope of regaining control of the Senate next year and are giving a higher priority to the House, where they need to add 16 seats to regain control.
The other Democrats who already have announced retirements are Paul Simon of Illinois, David Pryor of Arkansas, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Jim Exon of Nebraska and Howell Heflin of Alabama.
All five have created openings in which Republicans will be either favorites or even bets to take over the seats, and the same is true in New Jersey.
Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island Democrat, is also expected to retire, but the Democrats probably would be favored to hold that seat.
And some senators say privately that Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia is talking about quitting, although he has given no such signal publicly.
In contrast to the Democrats, only one Republican senator -- Hank Brown of Colorado -- has announced plans to step down. And his party will be clearly favored to hold the seat.
Mr. Bradley's decision could be especially damaging, because the prominence and relative youth of the one-time star of professional basketball suggests a party coming apart at the seams in the aftermath of the 1994 elections, in which it lost both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said that Mr. Bradley's retirement "means Democrats will have to work even harder to regain control of the Senate next year."
But speaking privately, party strategists appeared more concerned that Mr. Bradley's decision and its implications could discourage financial support for Democratic candidates from contributors uninterested in helping elect members of a Senate minority party.
Mr. Bradley had been telling colleagues in the Senate cloakroom for months that he was frustrated with the Senate and his own inability to get anything done. That frustration was patent when he announced his plans yesterday in Newark.
"I've had enough, and it's time to go," he said. "I will not leave public life, but I will leave the U.S. Senate next year. I am disgusted with the politics of both parties. The Republicans think the market solves everything. The Democrats think government is the answer. Neither are correct."
Although he refused to answer questions about his plans, the retiring Democrat passed the word in formally that he has no intention of challenging President Clinton for the presidential nomination next year -- a possibility that seemed realistic last winter, when he criticized Mr. Clinton repeatedly.
But Mr. Bradley has always been ambivalent about a run for the White House. He enjoyed and even seemed to encourage speculation about a candidacy in 1988 but decided the time was not right.
Then, after narrowly winning re-election in 1990, he felt constrained to concentrate on the Senate during the preliminaries of the 1992 presidential campaign, when the re-election of George Bush seemed a foregone conclusion.
Mr. Bradley's decision is expected to set off multicandidate contests in both parties in New Jersey.
Republican Rep. Richard A. Zimmer had already been preparing to challenge Mr. Bradley and has more than $1 million in campaign funds already on hand. But Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate leader for years, said the Bradley retirement "intensifies" her interest in the campaign.
The most formidable Republican, however, could be former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who served two terms in the 1980s and was highly popular. Mr. Kean even became something of a pop fad figure after appearing for several years in tourism television commercials, declaring in a patrician accent: "New Jersey and you -- perfect together."
Sources close to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who came within an ace of defeating Mr. Bradley in 1990, said she has no interest in a Senate campaign.
The leading Democratic possibility appears to be Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, but there may be several other longtime officeholders coming into the field now that the opening is at hand.
Mr. Bradley was a basketball star at Princeton University and, after two years as a Rhodes scholar, with the New York Knicks. He was elected to the Senate in 1978 and quickly established a reputation as an authority on tax, economic and foreign policy issues and, as Mr. Clinton described him yesterday, as "a voice for civility" on such matters as racial injustice.