WASHINGTON - Ending weeks of suspense, an inward-looking Rudolph W. Giuliani announced yesterday that he was quitting the New York Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton to battle prostate cancer.
The pullout by the New York City mayor, who has also been fighting a series of damaging revelations about his personal life, dims the star power of a Senate contest that was shaping up as the most expensive and most publicized ever.
A relatively unknown Long Island congressman, Rick A. Lazio, quickly emerged as Clinton's most likely Republican challenger. Lazio's first task will be to close a "stature gap" between himself the first lady, analysts said.
Giuliani's decision, which he said he finally reached early yesterday, came as something of a surprise, because he seemed in recent days to be leaning toward staying in the race.
The normally tough-guy pol sounded remarkably vulnerable at a City Hall news conference, in which he said that his health was the only factor behind his pullout.
"I don't think I'm thinking about politics," Giuliani said. "I'm thinking about deeper things than that, you know? Life."
He said that if he had run while trying to recover from cancer treatment, he was afraid that he would lack the confidence he needed to be an effective candidate.
And in a rare instance of public self-criticism, Giuliani offered a tacit apology for helping to create an atmosphere of racial polarization in the city. He said he hoped that he could become "a better mayor" during his final 18 months in office and overcome the "barrier" he said he has placed between himself and the city's minority groups.
"I think, somehow, something good is going to come out of this, really good, for me, for the people around me, and maybe for the people of the city," he said.
Clinton, who phoned Giuliani after his announcement to "wish him well," refused to discuss the suddenly changed politics of the Senate contest.
"This campaign is not about me or about any opponent," she told reporters in New York. "It is about the future of our children, our families, our state and our country."
Her chief strategist, Harold Ickes, acknowledged that Clinton would enjoy an initial advantage over Lazio, who first must introduce himself to the state's 10.7 million voters. But the Republican could overcome that "pretty quickly, depending on how he handles himself," he said.
Ickes and other Democrats lost no time in trying to describe him in politically unflattering terms. Ickes called the three-term congressman as "a very strong supporter of the Gingrich-Armey radical Republican agenda."
In a statement, Lazio said he would formally announce his candidacy "shortly." He opened his campaign office yesterday.
Another potential Republican entrant, Rep. Peter T. King, a Long Island maverick, vowed to "push as hard as I can" to win the nomination. But he acknowledged that it would be difficult to stop Lazio, who has the support of Gov. George E. Pataki.
"The reality is that Governor Pataki is the one who controls the votes," King said. "He controls the decision-making process."
Pataki, regarded by many as potentially Clinton's most formidable Republican foe, has said he is not interested in running.
Giuliani's announcement comes less than two weeks before the state's Republican convention, which Giuliani campaign aides had helped plan. If the party is divided and two or more candidates secure more than 25 percent of the votes - a scenario deemed highly unlikely given Pataki's control over the proceedings - a primary would follow. Otherwise, the person endorsed at the convention will be the official nominee.
Most analysts said the race is likely to remain a tossup for now.
"More than anything else, this removes the cloud [of indecision] from over the Republicans in New York," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a newsletter on congressional races.
He noted that Lazio has the potential to attract more traditional Republican upstate votes than Giuliani, whose city roots made him a tough sell there. At the same time, Lazio could find it more difficult than Giuliani would to attract enough votes in the city to offset Clinton's advantage.
A Quinnipiac College survey, released earlier this week, showed Clinton leading Lazio by a margin of 50 percent to 31 percent. But the same poll showed that 72 percent of New York voters said they didn't know enough about him to make a decision.
"It's a new ballgame," said Maurice Carroll, who directs the Quinnipiac poll. He said Lazio might be better able than Giuliani to unite the state Republican Party, and he added that it was too early to say whether Giuliani's withdrawal would tip the advantage in the race to Clinton.
Giuliani had kept Republicans in suspense for weeks over his plans, after disclosing his April 26 diagnosis of prostate cancer.
He said he came to a final decision to quit the race early yesterday, after spending a mostly sleepless night wrestling with his alternatives. By the time he made the announcement, his plans were well-known.
Giuliani said he has still not decided what course of treatment to pursue. He has discussed his options with many doctors, friends and advisers, even venturing to Baltimore recently to consult with Dr. Patrick Walsh, a world-renowned Johns Hopkins urologist.
"I thought the decision about running would be sort of a calculation that you would make about how tired you would be or not be. And I found that it's much more difficult than that," the mayor said.
In the process of "thinking about it, suffering about it," he added, "something very beautiful happens. It makes you figure out what you're really all about."
The mayor said: "Your life is more important [than politics]. Your health is more important, the people you love, your family, people that are close to you and really care about you, you know, those are the most important things in life."
Giuliani had seen his lead over Clinton vanish in recent months, as the first lady doggedly took her path-breaking candidacy to every one of the state's 62 counties.
Even before he learned that he had cancer, some Republicans worried that Giuliani's heart was not in the race. Some strategists also worried that he was not making all-important courtesy calls upstate, skipping a fund-raiser there as recently as last weekend and golfing instead.
"I think he always had mixed emotions," says Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney. "I think he's a guy who by temperamental disposition was drawn more to the executive than the legislative."