By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES (Reuters) - Senator Tom Harkin, a veteran Iowa Democrat and one of the most liberal senators, said on Saturday he will not seek re-election in 2014, putting at risk what was considered a safe Democratic seat.
Harkin, 73, who has focused much of his nearly 40-year congressional career on farm policy, education and expanding rights for people with disabilities, is the third senator facing re-election next year who has announced his retirement, following Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
"I don't by any means plan to retire completely from public life at the end of this Congress," Harkin said in a statement. "But I am going to make way for someone new in this Senate seat. I think that is right not just for me, but for Iowa, as well."
Iowa, the site of the early presidential caucuses, is considered a political swing state. Republican Charles Grassley is Iowa's other U.S. senator.
At hastily arranged remarks to the Iowa Democratic Party central committee after his announcement, Harkin said he would stay active.
"I'm not quitting today. This is not a time for legacy talks or anything like this," said Harkin, who has served in Congress since 1974. Several committee members had tears running down their cheeks as he spoke.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, in a statement described Harkin as "a passionate progressive, whose deeply-held principles have provided a guiding light to Democrats for decades."
Party officials said Harkin's announcement, coming early in the current two-year election cycle, provides ample time to recruit a strong Democratic candidate.
Of the Democrats, U.S. Representative Bruce Braley is widely seen as a front-runner, while U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, and his wife, Christine Vilsack, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, are also viewed as potential candidates.
Among Republicans, U.S. Representatives Tom Latham, a moderate, and Steve King, a conservative, were mentioned as possible candidates, which could produce a divisive Republican primary.
Democratic President Barack Obama won Iowa in the November election but the state has a Republican governor, and a divided legislature and congressional delegation.
Harkin's retirement "just reinforces our belief that a grassroots Republican comeback can take place in 2014. Let's have it start in Iowa," Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said in an email appeal to state Republicans.
Republicans need to pick up six seats in the mid-term elections next year to take a majority in the 100-member Senate.
One of the last of the Senate's old guard liberals, Harkin angrily opposed the White House over the recent fiscal cliff compromise that Vice President Joe Biden negotiated with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Harkin said the deal that raised taxes only on the very rich helps the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
Harkin was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974 and the Senate in 1984.
"When the current Congress is over, I will have served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for a total of 40 years. After 40 years, I just feel it's somebody else's turn," he said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Charles Abbott and Vicki Allen in Washington; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)
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