Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a rising star in the Democratic party who basked in the limelight of Barack Obama's presidential nomination in Denver but faced a tough re-election campaign, announced Wednesday that he is abandoning this year's race.
Ritter's decision caught party leaders off guard and boosted Republican hopes that former GOP Rep. Scott McInnis can recapture the governorship of a key Western swing state.
Ritter, 53, said he needed to spend more time with his family, and he insisted the move will free him politically to make "tough and unpopular decisions" in the months ahead, especially in balancing Colorado's budget.
The former Denver district attorney announced his decision at the state Capitol surrounded by three of his children.
"I would say it this way: I haven't found the proper balance where my family is concerned," Ritter said.
Colorado Democrats canceled a planned summit to discuss finding a new candidate. "We're having private, individual conversations," said state party chairwoman Pat Waak.
In Washington, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — a former Colorado U.S. senator — refused to comment when asked if he'd be interested in the governor's position.
"Bill Ritter has been a devoted servant of the public at great sacrifice to self and family," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. "I thank him for his service."
Obama wished Ritter the best.
"He leaves behind an extraordinary record of accomplishments — establishing himself as a national education reform leader, building a new energy economy, expanding health care to those in need, and rebuilding Colorado's infrastructure," Obama said in a prepared statement.
Top Democratic contenders include Salazar, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and most observers are waiting to see what Salazar will do.
McInnis had both outpolled Ritter in recent months and raised more money.
A December Rasmussen Reports poll suggested McInnis led Ritter 48 percent to 40 percent. The telephone survey of 500 likely voters showed that unaffiliated voters — traditionally about a third of registered voters in Colorado — preferred McInnis over Ritter by 46 percent to 39 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
A fourth-generation Coloradan, McInnis served in the state Legislature before representing western Colorado's sprawling 3rd Congressional District from 1993 to 2005. Dan Maes, a businessman from the Denver suburb of Evergreen, is a longshot in the GOP race.
With his voice sometimes breaking, Ritter said he thought about retiring from politics over the winter break and did "a lot of soul-searching." He insisted fellow Democrats didn't ask him to consider leaving office.
"Nobody's ever pressured me to not run," Ritter said. "By not running for re-election, I'll be able to make the tough and unpopular decisions that need to be made."
Ritter's decision underscored Democrats' concerns that a state once firmly in the GOP column could return to the opposition.
Since 2000, Colorado became friendly ground for Democrats, thanks to population growth, especially among Latinos. Democrats picked up control of the governor's mansion, both chambers of the state Legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and five of seven seats in Congress.
Ritter succeeded Republican Bill Owens, who was term-limited, by defeating Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez in 2006. He championed building a renewable energy economy and is banking on federal stimulus dollars to propel that initiative.
But Ritter surprised many when he vetoed a measure to make it easier to set up all-union workplaces. He later signed an order allowing state workers to organize. One of his biggest — and most criticized — decisions was to appoint a little-known associate, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, to a U.S. Senate seat in January 2009. Bennet replaced Ken Salazar.
In 2008, Ritter basked as Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention, where Obama accepted his party's presidential nomination. Obama became the first Democrat to carry Colorado since 1992; one Denver rally drew more than 100,000 people, the biggest rally of his campaign.
Ritter's decision to withdraw came in a week when national Democrats were coping with the retirements of Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.
Among governors, Democrats are seeking to maintain their 26-24 majority in a year when winners will oversee the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts for the next decade.
Ritter's wife, Jeannie, praised her husband.
"It's really his decision. I'm really proud of him," she said.