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Senate leader Mitchell to retire; Democrats scramble

George Mitchell, the son of a janitor and an appointee to the Senate who became majority leader in less than a decade, startled Washington on Friday by saying he would not seek re-election this fall.

Mitchell, 60, gave no specific reason for his decision, saying he was in good health, enjoyed his work and was certain Maine voters would have returned him to office.

He said in a statement that it was the right time for him to do something else, but he did not say what. "No doubt some will search for other reasons for my decision," he said. "But there aren't any."

Speculation, indeed, was rife that Mitchell, a former federal judge and a lawyer from Portland, Maine, was clearing a path to become a Supreme Court justice or, possibly, baseball commissioner.

The senator made inquiries about the office of the commissioner as far back as 1992, said an executive who is familiar with Major League Baseball's inner workings and who is a friend of Mitchell.

Some team owners talked to Mitchell, an avid Boston Red Sox fan, last year about becoming commissioner. He told the Boston Globe then that he could handle egotistical baseball team owners because he was already handling senators with big egos.

"One of them warned me I would have 28 millionaires with gigantic egos to deal with," Mitchell told the Globe. "And I told him that would be a 72 percent reduction."

The decision of Mitchell, who has no heir apparent in the Senate or in Maine, will set off mad scrambles in both places to replace him.

Maine politicians have only three weeks to file for a race that was lopsided in Mitchell's favor but is now considered highly competitive; Senate Democrats are likely to have a spirited leadership battle if the party keeps its Senate majority of 56-44. That majority often has been slimmer because of declining party loyalty.

Unlike the House speaker, who is appointed according to seniority and who presides over that chamber, the Senate majority leader is elected by the majority party, in this case the Democrats, and rarely presides over the Senate. That is left to the U.S. vice president, usually only on ceremonial occasions; the president pro tempore; or about a dozen majority party senators who take turns presiding. The majority leader's job is to serve his party on the Senate floor.

In his announcement on Friday in which he paid tribute to his parents and mentor, Edmund Muskie, Mitchell vowed to spend his final months as majority leader fighting for health care, welfare and campaign finance reform, as well as anti-crime legislation and to protect the jobs in Maine's struggling shipbuilding and fishing industries.

Mitchell has been a solid Clinton ally in the administration's turbulent first year. He still is pivotal to President Clinton's hope of getting health care reform that includes universal coverage through the Senate, and a major question Friday was whether Mitchell would lose clout as a lame duck majority leader and have a harder time selling Clinton's plan.

Clinton said Mitchell told him Thursday night of his plans to retire from the Senate.

"He is a wonderful man," Clinton said Friday. "I will miss him a lot, and America is very deeply in his debt."

If Democrats hold their Senate majority, which appears likely but not certain, they would pick a new majority leader in the fall who would succeed Mitchell when the new Congress convenes in January.

There is no clear front-runner now, but possible contenders mentioned Friday included South Dakota's Tom Daschle; West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller; Louisiana's John Breaux and Bennett Johnston; Kentucky's Wendell Ford, the second-ranking Democrat; Nevada Sen. Harry Reid; and Arkansas Sen. David Pryor.

Mitchell is the eighth Senate incumbent _ five of them Democrats _ to announce he will not seek re-election. There was also word Friday that another senior Senate Democrat, David Boren of Oklahoma, might resign his seat later this year or early next year.

Mitchell was involved in Democratic politics for years in Maine and lost a bid to be governor in 1974. He was later named a federal judge and was considered a protege of Muskie.

Mitchell was appointed to the Senate in 1980 to succeed Muskie. Muskie was named secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter to replace Cyrus Vance in the midst of the crisis over the hostages take by Iran.

As a senator, Mitchell made his strongest mark on environmental issues, pulling together the very difficult renewal of the Clean Air Act in 1990.

He was also instrumental in the defeat of former Texas Sen. John Tower's nomination as secretary of defense in 1991 and later that year led the successful filibuster against a proposal to cut the capital gains tax.

_ Information from the New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press and the Times library was used in this report.

George Mitchell

Age, birth date: 60. Aug. 20, 1933, in Waterville, Maine.

Education: Bowdoin College, B.A., 1954; Georgetown University, law degree, 1960.

Military service: Army, 1954-56.

Family: Divorced; one daughter, Andrea, of Portland, Maine.

Religion: Roman Catholic.

Political career: Maine Democratic Party chairman, 1966-68; Democratic National Committee, 1969-77; assistant county attorney, 1971-77; Democratic nominee for governor, 1974; U.S. attorney for Maine, 1977-79; U.S. District Court judge, 1979-80.

Congress: Appointed to the Senate in 1980. Senate majority leader (elected Nov. 11, 1988). Member, Finance Committee, Environment & Public Works, Veterans' Affairs.

_ Times wires