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Perdue issued a statement at noon Thursday saying her focus is on improving the state’s education system and “my race for re-election will only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools.”

“The thing I care about most right now is making sure that our schools and schoolchildren do not continue to be the victims of shortsighted legislative actions and severe budget cuts,” Perdue said in a statement. “Therefore, I am announcing today that I have decided not to seek re-election. I hope this decision will open the door to an honest and bipartisan effort to help our schools.”

The timing of Perdue’s decision shocked the North Carolina political world, coming just 15 weeks before the May primary election and without apparent notice to her staff or other top Democrats who didn’t find out until this morning.

Perdue’s departure holds national implications as it creates a scramble at the top of the Democratic ticket in a key political swing state that will host the Democratic National Convention and play a key role in President Barack Obama‘s re-election. Perdue is North Carolina’s first woman governor and one of three Democratic state executives in the South.

A fresh Democratic face could help Democrats, given Perdue’s dismal poll numbers and the ongoing criminal cases against three campaign associates relating to fundraising from her narrow 2008 victory, political observers say.

A January poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed that half of North Carolina likely voters viewed her unfavorably, making her one of the most unpopular governors in the nation. The poll showed that likely Republican nominee Pat McCrory, the former longtime Charlotte mayor, held an 11-point advantage. A similar poll from the conservative Civitas group, conducted just days ago, gave McCrory a 14-point advantage.

Perdue beat McCrory in 2008 by the closest margin since 1972, outspending him substantially. But Perdue’s fundraising numbers began to dwindle and some top donors defected to McCrory. Both candidates had about $2 million in cash going into 2012.

“Perdue’s decision not to run for a second term increases the chances that Democrats can hold on to the office,” said Wake Forest University professor of political science John Dinan, an expert on state politics. It “clears the way for Democrats to nominate someone with a better chance of keeping the seat in Democratic hands.”

A number of top Democrats names are mentioned as possible replacements, including Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, former Congressman Bob Etheridge, former UNC system President Erskine Bowles, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Moore and State Treasurer Janet Cowell. One possible contender, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, said Thursday that he would not run for governor, instead seeking re-election.

Another likely candidate for governor is state Rep. Bill Faison, an Orange County Democrat, who has been making moves for months about running for higher office. Faison said he will make an announcement next week about his plans. Asked if he will run, Faison said “You should probably expect the announcement will be in that direction.”

Perdue’s exit came the morning U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh announced his retirement, saying he wouldn’t challenge fellow Democrat David Price in the 4th Congressional District after legislative redistricting put them in the same territory. Miller said he hasn’t thought about running for governor.

A source close to Dalton said he is leaning toward entering the governor’s race and is expected to make a decision very soon. He has been calling key supporters this morning, after learning of Perdue’s announcement. Last night he raised an estimated $150,000 at a fund raiser at the home of prominent Cary software executive Jim Goodnight.

Perdue’s apparent reasoning for her decision is tied to her proposal earlier this month to raise the state sales tax by 3/4 of a penny to fund school districts. Republican state legislative leaders called the plan dead on arrival.

And the Republican Governor’s Association linked the tax proposal to Perdue’s departure in a statement. “As governor, Bev Perdue continues to set the Democrat agenda in Raleigh, which now includes a massive, job-crushing sales tax hike,” said Phil Cox, the group’s executive director, in a statement. “No matter how hard they try, whoever emerges as the Democratic Party’s successor … won’t be able to run from the Democrats’ record of higher taxes and disappointing job losses.”

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