Erskine Bowles said Thursday that he would not run for governor, but other Democrats moved to fill the void with former Congressman Bob Etheridge announcing that he would seek his party's nomination.
Bowles, 66, a Charlotte investment banker, was the rarest of political figures: the subject of a legitimate draft by his party, which saw the former university president, former White House chief of staff and budget hawk as the sort of senior statesman who might rescue the Democrats after Gov. Bev Perdue's surprise announcement last week that she would not seek re-election.
But after mulling the idea seriously for a week, Bowles sent out an email Thursday morning announcing that he would remain a private citizen.
"I will not be a candidate for governor," Bowles said. "I've spent a lot of time trying to think what is the right thing for me to do. I don't think anyone questions my love for North Carolina or my efforts to make our State a better place to live, work, or raise a family. I've done my best in this regard, and I plan to continue to do so."
While Bowles was making up his mind, he had frozen much of the Democratic field except for two candidates who had previously announced: Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County. But the field immediately began to thaw after the Bowles announcement, with a number of leading Democrats signaling interest in becoming the state's chief executive.
Etheridge, 70, who served seven terms in Congress, as well as two terms as superintendent of public instruction, announced his candidacy.
"My life's work has been about improving the public education system in North Carolina," Etheridge said in a statement. "As we move forward, we must ensure we are making the key investments in public education, community colleges and the university system."
Etheridge lost his congressional seat in 2010 to Republican Renee Ellmers. Most recently he headed the state's stimulus program and Hurricane Irene recovery efforts.
Democratic Congressman Brad Miller of Raleigh said he planned to decide by the weekend whether to enter the race.
"I am thinking very hard about it," Miller said in a telephone interview from Washington. "I need to make a decision very quickly."
Miller, who has said he will not seek re-election after being gerrymandered into an unfavorable district, said he has received a lot of encouragement to run for governor. He notes that his 13th Congressional District includes two media markets - the Triangle and the Triad - that would include half the voters in the Democratic primary May 8.
Former state Treasurer Richard Moore of Raleigh, who has run statewide several times, said he is "still very interested and will spend some time calling around the state over the next few days to gather advice and perspective."
Moore, a former crime control secretary and former legislator, lost to Perdue in the Democratic primary in 2008.
The campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton put out a statement saying no decision had been made about what office he would run for.
None of the potential Democratic candidates has the name recognition or money-raising ability of Bowles. Nor do they have the ability to erode the Charlotte political base of former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely Republican nominee.
Asked whether he would have backed Bowles, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said, "I'm sure I would have." Now, he said, he'll support the other Charlottean.
"I'm going to support McCrory for governor," he said. "Since the other man is not in the race, that's not an issue."
Bowles had crossover appeal among Republicans, and that will be difficult for other Democrats to match.
Friends and associates said Bowles was torn by the decision. But he had promised to spend more time with his family, wanted to focus his public activities on lobbying for some of the reforms of the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission, and had lost whatever appetite he had for elective politics during his two unsuccessful Senate runs in 2002 and 2004.
Democratic former Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan of Montgomery County said Bowles had promised to spend more time with his family when he left the presidency of the University of North Carolina, that he would stay out of the political arena, and that it was hard for him to go back on the promise.
"Fatigue can be part of it," Jordan said. "His time with the university, having run statewide twice before. If he hadn't had those experiences, it might have been different this time."
A big 'nonsurprise'
Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who co-chaired the president's deficit commission with Bowles, said he wasn't surprised by the decision.
"I think it's the biggest nonsurprise declaration from my pal I've ever heard," said Simpson, who repeatedly has heard Bowles declare that he is not a good politician.
"That's a thrilling prospect for anybody to see somebody run who's not shoveling mush or BS at them," Simpson said.
Longtime friend Tom Drew of Durham sat alongside Bowles at the funeral of philanthropist Mary Duke Semans at Duke University, where both were honorary pallbearers. At one point, Drew said, he turned to Bowles and said, "Sure wish you'd run for governor." He underscored the point again later.
"Well, I've got a lot to think about," he said Bowles replied.
"Mary would like you to do it," Drew said, referring to Semans, prompting Bowles to turn and smile.
"I'm sure she would," Bowles said.
Drew thinks Bowles realized it would be a long campaign. "And when that's over, it's going to be a hard four years, and after that another hard four years," he said. "He knew what a grind it was going to be."