JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Despite being courted by his own political party for several weeks, Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell said Thursday he won't run for the U.S. Senate next year.
State and national Democratic Party officials had been trying to recruit Maxwell to challenge Republican Sen. Kit Bond, who has not officially announced a re-election bid but is expected to seek a fourth term.
"After much thought and reflection about where I could do the most good for the people of Missouri, I've decided to remain your lieutenant governor," Maxwell said in a letter to supporters released Thursday by his office.
Instead, Maxwell said he will seek re-election in 2004. Maxwell, who served in the Legislature from 1991 through 2000, has said his ultimate goal is to run for governor someday.
Maxwell said last month he was seriously considering taking on Bond, who declined to comment on a potential challenger.
"Senator Bond is focused on the tasks at hand in the Senate; he has many high priority issues that he's focused on right now for the state of Missouri," said Jason Van Eaton, a top aide to Bond.
Members of Maxwell's staff said Thursday he would not make additional comments about his decision.
Speculation that Maxwell was not going to challenge Bond had surfaced earlier this week among Democratic officials and other potential contenders.
"There are moments when we must all put our faith in practice and ask for guidance as we ponder decisions of life," Maxwell said in the letter. "I have, and it has helped me understand my place in time -- which is right here, right now, working for all of you as your lieutenant governor."
Amid indications Maxwell would bow out of contention, national Democratic Party staff made plans this week to meet in Missouri with at least two other potential Senate candidates, state Sen. Ken Jacob of Columbia and St. Louis attorney Charles E. Berry.
In addition, many Democrats still are encouraging Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill to drop the idea of challenging Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in a primary and running against Bond instead.
No Democrat has committed to challenging Bond, who won his last election in 1998 by a margin of 9 percentage points over Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. Bond also served two terms as Missouri governor.
The search for a challenger to Bond is being handled by the Washington-based Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is the political arm of U.S. Senate Democrats and, like its GOP counterpart, is a vital resource for candidates.
Scott Baker, a spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, said Maxwell's decision and the search for a Democratic challenger will not affect Bond's re-election efforts next year.
"Joe Maxwell may be many things, but he isn't stupid," Baker said Thursday. "He knows the Democrats' chances in this race are slim at best, and he's decided to skip his turn as sacrificial lamb."
Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Mike Kelley countered that "Senator Bond is not going to run hard."
"We're confident that damn near any Democrat who decides to run against him will win," Kelley said.
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