Republican U.S. Senate Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said on Wednesday he would not run for the White House in 2008 and will return to his medical career after he leaves office in January.

Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon who served two terms in the Senate, had been preparing for a possible presidential run for more than a year but said he decided this was not the time to pursue higher office.

"In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close. I do not intend to run for president in 2008," Frist said in a statement.

He said he would "return to my professional roots as a healer."

Frist became Senate Republican leader on January 7, 2003, replacing Trent Lott of Mississippi, who stepped aside under pressure for a racially insensitive remark.

But Frist was criticized for his performance as Senate leader and for the party’s crushing loss in elections earlier this month. Republicans lost six Senate seats, relinquishing control of the chamber for the first time since 2002.

"In the short term, I will resume my regular medical mission trips as a doctor around the world to serve those in poverty, in famine and in civil war," he said.

"I will continue to be a strong voice to fix what is broken in our health care system and to address the issues of clean water and public health globally."

Frist was criticized for weighing into a 2005 court battle over the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain damaged Florida woman who became a rallying point for right-to-life advocates. After only viewing a videotape, Frist declared she was not in a persistent vegetative state — a conclusion disputed by a later autopsy.

He also was damaged by a federal probe into his stock sales, a critical drawback in a year when Republicans were hammered by voters over ethical issues.

The criticism made a presidential bid difficult, but Frist advisers and supporters said the decision not to run was more personal than political.

"He just didn’t feel this was the right time to take that step," said Brian Kennedy, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman who had been helping Frist in the key state of Iowa, which kicks off the nomination process in early 2008.

Frist tried to appeal to conservatives, some of whom are still wary of early Republican favorites Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. McCain and Giuliani already have formed presidential exploratory committees.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are among other potential Republican candidates in what promises to be a wide open race to succeed Republican President George W. Bush.

"There is no question there is still a void on the more conservative side of the party that Frist might have been able to fill," said Republican consultant Jim Dyke, a former Frist adviser.

Frist easily won a straw poll of party activists in March at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

He also helped Republican Bob Corker win election to his Tennessee Senate seat in a tough race with Democratic Rep. Harold Ford earlier this month.

Frist is the second senator to rule out a presidential bid since the November 7 elections. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin also decided not to seek his party’s nomination.

Frist said he would explore ways to serve the public outside of politics and along with his wife, Karyn, would remain active in policy issues affecting Americans.

"Karyn and I will seek the best opportunity to serve. I may eventually return to what I’ve done for most of my adult life, heal through medicine and health," he said.

© Reuters 2006

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