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Patton nixes run for Senate

Decision follows disclosure of affair

Gov. Paul Patton:
Gov. Paul Patton: "I must now focus on rebuilding my private life."

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FRANKFORT, Kentucky (CNN) -- Six days after confessions of an extramarital affair dealt a stinging blow to his political life, Gov. Paul Patton said Tuesday he would withdraw from politics for "the foreseeable future" and not run for the Senate in 2004.

Patton, the state's most popular Democrat, had told party insiders as early as 1999 that he would challenge Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican, in 2004. But that was before he was forced to acknowledge a two-year affair with Tina Conner, reversing an earlier denial and drawing harsh criticism from Democrats who fear he could hurt them in midterm elections this fall and the governor's race next year.

The two-term 65-year-old governor said he would refrain from politicking in hopes of minimizing any negative impact on his party.

"I do not anticipate, in the foreseeable future, any involvement in the political process including the U.S. Senate race," said Patton during the second dramatic news conference he has held over the past week in the state Capitol. "My total focus will be on being the best governor I can be for the next 14 months."

Patton, whose wife of 25 years Judi did not attend the news conferences Tuesday or last week, when he tearfully discussed the affair, said he told state Democratic Chairman Jerry Johnson to run the party "with no input or direction from me."

He said Johnson "has pledged to administer the party in a way which will best serve the party's candidates in the November election and maintain the party's financial and administrative integrity in preparation for next year's race for governor."

With the exception of one previously scheduled event this week, Patton added, "I will not be participating in or attending political functions. For the time being, I do not anticipate personally answering any questions regarding political matters."

"I must now focus on rebuilding my private life" and to his duties as governor and to legal issues, an allusion to the lawsuit Conner has filed against him.

Conner, 40, claims she had a two-year affair with Patton, during which he assisted her in running a nursing home in western Kentucky. When Conner ended the affair, Patton turned regulators loose on the nursing home, which now is in bankruptcy, according to her lawsuit.

The state's ethics commission announced Monday that it will meet in a special session Friday to review abuse-of-power allegations stemming from Patton's affair.

For his part Bunning, a former star Major League pitcher who won his first term by just 6,700 votes over former congressman Scotty Baesler and has said he will run for re-election in two years, sought to distance himself from Patton's troubles.

"I've said all along that I am looking forward to running against the winner of the Democrat primary in 2004. Today's announcement does not affect those plans one way or another," the senator said in a statement. "In the meantime, I'm going to focus on national security issues and the coming conflict with Iraq. There are many things that are more important than politics."

Patton, who was elected chairman of the National Governors Association in July, said he would not resign that position.

Patton's move Tuesday marked a dramatic end, for now, of an impressive political career that defied the state's trend toward Republicans. (President Bush carried Kentucky in 2000 by 16 points).

A former coal mine operator, Patton was elected governor in 1995 by just 1 percent but sailed to a second term four years later by a nearly 3-1 margin. While he would be 67 during the 2004 Senate race against Bunning, Patton was viewed as by far the strongest Democratic threat to the Senator.

In announcing his political exodus, Patton urged news reporters to restrain their coverage of his private life. "As much as I understand your need to ask questions, I'm sure you understand my need to conduct my personal affairs in a private manner," he said.

Apparently hoping to exhaust interest in the story, Patton took several questions after reading a prepared statement. "I will stay here as long as you want to ask me questions," he said. However, he repeatedly declined to answer questions, saying he believed his prepared remarks "speak to that question."

--From CNN Political Editor John Mercurio in Washington

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