JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Republican Sen. Kit Bond announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election in 2010, saying he wants to go out "at the top of my game" and setting the stage for what one expert said could be a "land rush" for the seat.
Bond, 69, made the announcement at the state Capitol, shortly after Missouri lawmakers convened.
"Public service has been a blessing and a labor of love for me ... but I have decided that my Senate career will end after this, my fourth term," he said.
Bond was first elected to the Senate in 1986 _ the only Republican that year to capture a seat previously held by a Democrat. Voters re-elected him three times. Before joining the Senate, Bond was governor and state auditor.
"In 1973, I became Missouri's youngest governor. I do not aspire to become Missouri's oldest senator," Bond said. "I'd like to retire while I'm still at the top of my game."
Bond had told crowds last year that he would be seeking re-election, and his chief of staff had also moved home to Missouri from Washington, a move seen as a strong sign Bond was laying the groundwork for another campaign.
Bond told reporters that he decided not to run after discussing his future with his family over the Christmas holiday. Bond spokeswoman Shana Marchio said she had been "preparing for him to run. We were going full-throttle."
Jeff Roe, a longtime Republican political consultant, said Thursday's announcement caught everyone off guard and predicted there would be a lively race for the seat.
"I think there will be a land rush," Roe said. "I don't think there's anyone in Missouri who's received over 10,000 votes in the last 10 years that's not thinking about running for Senate right now."
Bond's decision will force the GOP to launch an expensive and competitive campaign next year to hold onto the Missouri Senate seat, as well as the seat in Florida being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez, who is retiring. Senate Democrats, who need 60 votes to stop Republican filibusters, hold 58 seats and could have 59 if Minnesota upholds Al Franken's recount victory.
Possible GOP candidates include Rep. Roy Blunt, who recently stepped down from his post as House Minority Whip; his son, outgoing Gov. Matt Blunt; and former Sen. Jim Talent, who narrowly lost his bid for re-election in 2006 to Democrat Claire McCaskill. Other possibilities are Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and two other House members, Jo Ann Emerson and Sam Graves.
Kinder, of Cape Girardeau, declined Thursday to discuss whether he was interested in running.
Gov. Matt Blunt endorsed his father for the job Thursday, telling The Associated Press that the elder Blunt was "seriously considering" the Senate race.
Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the daughter of the late-Gov. Mel Carnahan and former Sen. Jean Carnahan, had been considered the strongest Democrat in a race against Bond. A longtime Carnahan confidant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak publicly about her intentions, said Carnahan had been considering a 2010 Senate bid even before Bond's announcement and was likely to run.
Outgoing state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who lost in the 2008 Republican gubernatorial primary, also told the AP she was considering a Senate run as a result of Bond's departure.
Bond's retirement is the second political jolt to the Missouri GOP in as many years. Matt Blunt had stunned supporters and foes alike a year ago when he announced he would not seek a second term as governor. A contentious Republican primary resulted, and Democrat Jay Nixon ultimately won the governorship in the November election. He is to be sworn in next week.
After serving briefly as an assistant attorney general, Bond was elected state auditor in 1970. He became Missouri's youngest governor _ at age 33 _ when he was sworn in Jan. 8, 1973 _ exactly 36 years before Thursday's announcement.
Bond lost re-election in 1976 only to win a rematch against Democratic Gov. Joe Teasdale in 1980.
President George W. Bush thanked Bond in a statement Thursday for his service, calling him "a tireless advocate for our children, our military, and our nation's intelligence community."
Bond was the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in late 2006 and later played a key role in bringing both parties together to revise the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
AP reporters Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Jim Salter in St. Louis, and Sam Hananel, Libby Quaid and Suzanne Gamboa in Washington contributed to this story.