"After much thought and consideration, I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent more of my professional life, and will not seek re-election in 2012," Webb said in a statement his office released Wednesday morning.
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Webb, a former Republican with a reputation for going his own way, gave party leaders about an hour's notice before making his decision public, a Democratic source said.
Democrats now must come up with a new standard-bearer in a battleground state.One possibility: former Gov. Tim Kaine, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine has denied interest in the Senate race, but that was before Webb made his decision official.
The Republican senator whom Webb ousted, George Allen, already has announced that he will be attempting a comeback. And he's got competition for the GOP nomination. Jamie Radtke, a tea party leader in the state, has also announced her Senate candidacy.
Virginia, once reliably Republican, is now a battleground state.
In 2008, President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964, but Republicans made a comeback in 2009, when Bob McDonnell won the governorship.
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