Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, one of the most influential voices on military matters in Congress, announced yesterday that he would not run for re-election, paving the way for a battle between Democrats and Republicans to claim his seat.
Warner is a pivotal figure in the debate over what to do about the war in Iraq and is likely to be squarely in the middle of efforts to craft legislation this fall to dictate the return of U.S. troops. He has become increasingly critical of the war, and upon his return from Iraq recently, he angered the White House when he said some troops should leave by year's end.
Warner, 80, is a former secretary of the Navy, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a World War II veteran. With his courtly manner and his tendency to occasionally buck the party line, he is a favorite of senators on both sides of the aisle.
After nearly 30 years in the Senate, Warner had begun to hint that he might not run for another term next year.
"The Senate requires you to go full bore, six or seven days a week, tremendous energy, go to Iraq, jump in and out of helicopters, get on the cargo planes, no sleep," he said on NBC's Meet the Press last weekend. "And I've got to assess, at this age, whether it is fair to Virginia to ask for a contract for another six years."
During an announcement at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he graduated from law school in 1953, Warner said: "You've given me my best shot, and I'm quietly going to step aside and make way for others."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised his colleague, saying, "We are all better for having served with him, and his Senate family will miss him."
Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called Warner "a true gentlemen" who has served with distinction and honor.
"While this is a sad day for the Senate, Senator Warner's indelible impact on this institution will not be forgotten," Reid said.
The race to replace Warner in the Senate is likely to become one of the hottest in the nation. Virginia was once a staunchly Republican state, but it has shifted demographically in recent years, resulting in a Democrat ousting a Republican incumbent senator last year.
Mark Warner, the popular former Democratic governor who is not related to the senator, has said he is interested in running. On the Republican side, Rep. Tom Davis and former Gov. James S. Gilmore III could find themselves competing for the nomination.
After a recent trip to Iraq, Senator Warner said President Bush should start bringing some troops home by Christmas. If Bush refused, Warner said, he would consider backing anti-war legislation. His statement is expected to influence the Iraq debate this fall.
In 1996, the conservative wing of his own party tried to deny Warner a fourth term. He had angered conservatives two years earlier by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North's bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. Warner declared the Iran-contra figure unfit for public office and backed an independent who drew enough votes from moderates to ensure Robb's re-election.
Angered by what they viewed as party disloyalty, GOP conservatives backed former Reagan Budget Director James C. Miller III to challenge Warner for renomination.
Warner easily defeated Miller in a primary.
Warner mended his relationship with the GOP by supporting the successful campaigns of Gilmore for governor in 1997 and George Allen for Robb's Senate seat in 2000.
Warner is Virginia's second-longest serving senator, with a tenure surpassed only by that of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., who held office from 1933 to 1965.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.