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Lautenberg, oldest US senator, calls it quits

US Sen. Frank Lautenberg speaks to the press on January 29, 2013
Frank Lautenberg speaks to the press on January 29, 2013. New Jersey Democrat Lautenberg, the oldest member of the US Senate, announced he will not seek re-election in 2014, leaving the door open for other state political heavyweights.

New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member of the US Senate, announced he will not seek re-election in 2014, leaving the door open for other state political heavyweights.

Popular and charismatic Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the immediate frontrunner for the seat, having announced in December that he might challenge the 89-year-old Lautenberg for the Democratic nomination if the lawmaker opted to seek a sixth term.

"While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term," Lautenberg said in a statement.

Lautenberg, the last member of the Senate to have served in World War II, has been one of the more strident liberal voices in Washington for the past three decades.

He has recently been at the forefront of efforts to renew a ban on assault weapons and to restrict the size of ammunition clips.

"I am not announcing the end of anything," Lautenberg said.

"I am announcing the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey."

President Barack Obama lauded his fellow Democrat as "a steadfast champion of the people of New Jersey.

"Throughout his time in the Senate, Frank has fought tirelessly for workers, veterans, members of our military and their families, and immigrants," the president said.

Lautenberg is now the fourth senator in as many weeks -- and the third Democrat -- to announce retirement ahead of 2014 elections, with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Each race is expected to set off a fierce election battle, but Lautenberg's seat was hotly contested even before he announced his retirement.

Booker had been seen as contemplating a run for governor against incumbent Chris Christie, a popular Republican and potential 2016 presidential nominee, but the mayor announced in December that he was exploring a Senate bid.

The incumbent, never one to shy away from a fight, bristled but stood his ground, eventually quipping in January that the far younger Booker might need a "spanking" for aggressively coveting his seat.

Booker praised Lautenberg as a "strong model of leadership and service to me" since before entering politics, but the mayor's statement mentioned nothing of his interest in the post.

Lautenberg, the son of poor Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, joined the US Army when he was 18 and served in Europe in the Army Signal Corps.

He graduated from Columbia University and eventually became a successful businessman before entering politics.

"His life is a reflection of what America is all about," Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.

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