WASHINGTON — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name Thursday as President Barack Obama's leading candidate for secretary of state, saying the administration could not afford a "lengthy, disruptive and costly" confirmation fight over statements she made about the extremist attack in Libya that killed four Americans.
Rice called Obama on Thursday morning, before sending him a letter officially withdrawing from consideration. Rice said in an interview that she had concluded early this week that what she and Obama considered "unfair and misleading" charges against her over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, would impede the president's second-term agenda.
"This was my decision," Rice said. When asked if Obama had tried to dissuade her, she said that he "understood that this was the right decision, and that I made it for the right reasons."
Her withdrawal leaves Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. with no apparent competitors to take over from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As Obama assembles his second-term national security team, formal announcements are due as early as next week.
The president made clear that Rice, 48, would remain in his inner circle, saying he was grateful she would stay as "our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my Cabinet and national security team." Rice, too, said in her letter she would be staying.
She said in an interview that "after a long, grueling battle, in all likelihood, I would be confirmed.
"But I really came to believe this would not be weeks, but potentially months, and incredibly distracting and disruptive," Rice said. The first few months of any president's second term, she said, are "your high-water mark of influence."
"If my nomination meant that the odds of getting comprehensive immigration reform passed or any other major priority were substantially reduced, I couldn't live with myself," she said.
Rice's withdrawal was a retreat by Obama, who had repeatedly voiced support for her. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama described her as "an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant."
Criticism led by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has focused on what they called Rice's intentionally misleading description, in television interviews five days after the attack, of an anti-American demonstration that turned violent.
The administration later revised that assessment, using what it said was updated intelligence information, to blame organized extremists.
Rice's withdrawal, Graham said in a statement, "will not end questions about what happened in Benghazi." Clinton is scheduled to appear before House and Senate committees next week to discuss an independent State Department review of possible security lapses.
In a brief statement, a McCain spokesman said the senator "thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi."
In the weeks before the Nov. 6 presidential election, as Republican criticism of Rice crystallized, the White House initially portrayed the fight over her as blatantly partisan.
But White House attempts to mollify critics and round up support by sending Rice to Capitol Hill for two days of meetings last month backfired when moderates such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declined to endorse her.
By last Sunday, Rice said in the interview, "I started very seriously thinking that the costs really outweighed the benefits. That no number of facts or rationality or reason was going to deter those who were determined to make this a political issue."
Obama is scheduled to meet with Rice today in the Oval Office.
Throughout the controversy, Kerry has said little about Rice. On Thursday, he called her "an extraordinarily capable and dedicated public servant."
"As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be," he said, "I've felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction."
Rice said she does not think the secretary of state battle will undermine her effectiveness at the United Nations. "They know, because they've seen it firsthand, that I have the full confidence of the president," she said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.