Kerrey announced Sunday he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. He revealed the decision at a press conference after meeting privately with about 150 friends and family.
"My choice is not whether or not I will try to lead. My choice is how best can I lead," he said. "My heart tells me it is right to continue the work I have begun in the United States Senate. God and the people of Nebraska willing, my calling is to continue serving as a United States senator."
Kerrey, 55, whose second Senate term ends in two years, said the nation was at a crossroads.
"It is those moments when we are challenged to take a difficult path that I feel compelled to lead," he said. But, he added, "my choice is to remain where I am."
The announcement is good news for Vice President Al Gore. Kerrey already had signaled that his campaign strategy would be to accuse the vice president of being too cautious and pragmatic to lead the country into the next century.
Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, said the vice president "welcomes Sen. Kerrey's comments. He's always been a thoughtful and insightful contributor to our public discourse and dialogue."
Gore, who has not formally announced his intentions to run for president, has already drawn opposition from former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. The one-time basketball star formed an exploratory committee this month to begin raising money.
Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota also has taken that first step toward a presidential campaign. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson are considering whether to run. Kerrey said he had not decided which candidate he will support.
Bradley welcomed Kerrey's decision to stay out of the race, saying "I look forward to seeking his advice and counsel on the challenges facing us. And, I have to admit, I'm just as glad not to face him."
Kerrey said he would not rule out the possibility of running for president sometime in the future.
A millionaire owner of restaurants and health clubs in Nebraska, Kerrey ran for president in 1992. He withdrew after failing to win much support in any primary except South Dakota.
A Vietnam war hero, Kerrey raised his national stature by leading Democratic efforts to recruit candidates for the Senate and helping to raise funds for their campaigns.
Kerrey was a political unknown when he unseated Republican Gov. Charles Thone in 1982 in his first bid for office. Despite high approval ratings, Kerrey dropped out of politics after one term as governor to teach a college course in California on the Vietnam War's effect on American society.
As a Navy SEAL in VietnamKerrey directed an attack on a Viet Cong guerrilla group even after a grenade exploded at his feet. He lost part of his right leg and earned the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor.
In the Senate, Kerrey has established himself as an expert on agriculture, an advocate for major health care reforms, and a liberal voice on defense matters, including voting against going to war in the Persian Gulf.
By KEVIN O'HANLON