By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor David Paterson on Friday abandoned his campaign to seek a new term in November, battered by questions of impropriety and growing pressure to quit the race.
"I am being realistic about politics," the Democratic governor, under fire over his intervention in a domestic violence case involving one of his top aides, told a hastily called news conference to announce his withdrawal.
"There are times in politics when you have to know not to strive for service but to step back, and that moment has come for me," he said. "Today I am announcing that I am ending my campaign for governor of the state of New York."
Paterson only launched his campaign for a full term last week. He took over the governor's job in 2008 when former Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal, and the term expires at the end of this year.
The move shifts the spotlight to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who was expected to challenge the increasingly unpopular Paterson for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in America's third most populous state.
Paterson, the state's first black governor, who is legally blind, said he had offered his help to Cuomo, "should he become a candidate."
Cuomo, the son of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, has not declared his plans and in a statement said he would so "at the appropriate time."
"I am sure this is a difficult choice and a sad day for the governor and his family," Cuomo said. "It is in the best interests of all New Yorkers that the state government function through this difficult time and address the pressing budgetary problems we face."
Cuomo already far outpaced Paterson in opinion polls and campaign fundraising.
'DID THE RIGHT THING'
"The Democrats are dancing in the streets," said political strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "They were worried with Paterson at the top of the ticket their incumbencies might be endangered.
"Paterson will be remembered as somebody who had problems but did the right thing for his party and his state," he said.
Paterson's move follows reports he and state police spoke with a woman who last fall accused a top governor's aide of assault. After speaking with the governor, the woman failed to appear in court and her case was dismissed, said The New York Times which first reported the story.
The case raised questions of possible inappropriate intervention by the governor and added to calls from state and national Democratic leaders for Paterson to withdraw.
In Washington, asked about Paterson's decision, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said some news reports about the New York governor were "disturbing."
"I have not talked to the president about this," Gibbs said. But he added, "Anybody who read these articles believes at a minimum that he (Paterson) made the right decision."
Some reports have said the White House worked behind the scenes recently to urge Paterson not to seek a new term.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate will likely face former Republican Representative Rick Lazio, who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2000 to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In a statement, Lazio called Paterson's decision "another sad chapter in New York state government. It's dysfunctional, it's broken and it doesn't work."
Cuomo's office has launched an investigation into the governor's role in the domestic violence case against his top aide.
Paterson said at the news conference he never abused his office, "not now, not ever."
He complained of being plagued by unfounded rumors and "disparaged without sources" in local newspapers for weeks and said media should treat public servants with more respect.
"When we become celebrity cartoon characters to make fun of, we forget that these are real people who are trying to do a good job," he said. "But I'm not angry about it at all.... I did my best."
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton told reporters that Paterson "has experienced an unusual and unprecedented barrage of innuendo and rumor and has withstood it as he's withstood many things in his life."
Paterson served for many years as a popular state senator. But after taking the governor's job, he was criticized as ineffective in dealing with the economy, huge budget gaps and argumentative state legislators. He was seen as dithering when he needed to name a successor to Clinton, who became U.S. secretary of state.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Joan Gralla; Editing by Peter Cooney)