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North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) announced Friday he will not challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D) next year, spurning a major recruiting effort by the White House and dealing a blow to Republican chances of picking up a seat in a conservative state.

While Hoeven did not rule out running for higher office in the future, he said he wanted to continue concentrating on governing in 2006.

“The outpouring of support and encouragement I have received to run for the United States Senate is truly humbling, but as I have said, repeatedly, I am focused squarely on the job of governor,” he said in a brief statement released late Friday.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was in North Dakota six days prior to Hoeven’s announcement to raise money for the state GOP and continue lobbying the popular governor to run against Conrad, who is popular in his own right.

President Bush won North Dakota last year with 63 percent of the vote, and the state was seen as a prime target for Republicans to pick up a Senate seat to add to their majority on Capitol Hill.

Former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer, now CEO of a Bismarck-based company that provides broadband Internet service to rural areas, said in an interview Friday there is no other candidate available to challenge Conrad who is as formidable as Hoeven.

“It’ll be a harder race, than with [Hoeven], who just won re-election with 71 percent of the vote,” Schafer said.

Schafer said he will absolutely not fill the void left by Hoeven, calling himself an “executive branch kind of guy” who is uninterested in serving as a legislator.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responded swiftly Friday, ridiculing what it called a “failure” of Republicans to recruit quality Senate candidates.

“Today’s news is more evidence that running as a Republican could be hazardous to your health in 2006,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the DSCC chairman, said in a written statement.

Republicans have thus far been spurned by their top potential recruits in Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico and New York this cycle.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not return a phone call made late Friday requesting comment.

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