Turning aside entreaties from moderate leaders in his party, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge announced today that he would not run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate next year.

Some in the GOP have been looking for a less-conservative alternative to Pat Toomey, the former congressman whose primary challenge drove Sen. Arlen Specter last week to become a Democrat. They had concerns that Toomey would have a difficult time defeating Specter or another Democratic nominee in a state that has been trending blue in recent elections and also has a long history of electing centrists in both parties.

 "I am enormously grateful for the confidence my party expressed in me, the encouragement and kindness of my fellow citizens in Pennsylvania and the valuable counsel I received from so many of my party colleagues," Ridge said in a statement. "The 2010 race has significant implications for my party, and that required thoughtful reflection. All of the above made my decision a difficult and deeply personal conclusion to reach."

A survey by respected national pollster Neil Newhouse released Tuesday found Ridge leading Specter in a hypothetical matchup. Toomey trailed Specter, but was within striking distance in the poll, commissioned by Keystone Alliance PAC.
 
"I am deeply disappointed that Gov. Ridge has decided not to be a candidate, but I respect his decision, which was based on personal considerations," said Republican National Committeeman Bob Asher, who runs the PAC and had been among those recruiting Ridge.
 
Ridge, 63, has run an international security-consulting firm since he left the Bush administration in 2005 as the nation's first Homeland Security secretary. A decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, Ridge was elected to Congress from an Erie district in 1982, and was elected governor in 1994 in a three-way race. He cruised to reelection in 1998 and was tapped by President George W. Bush for the cabinet after the attacks of Sept. 11.
 
Conservatives had already been trying out lines of attack on Ridge, noting that he lives in a mansion in Chevy Chase, Md. –  far from Erie, where he still owns a home and is registered to vote -- and has represented foreign governments in his role as president of Ridge Global. Critics also pointed to an Inspector General's investigation that raised questions about the awarding of Homeland Security contracts to politically connected GOP contributors.
 
Ridge, a fiscal conservative who supports abortion rights, was always suspect among some in his party's right wing for that reason. Independent anti-abortion candidate Peg Luksik ran against him in 1994, and Ridge's moderation on social issues is said to have contributed to his being passed over as the GOP vice-presidential candidate in 1996, 2000 and 2008.
 
"To those who believe that the Republican Party is facing challenges, they are right," Ridge said, but he added that the Democratic Party is far from perfect.
 
"No one party has a monopoly on all the answers," Ridge said. "The more important view, in my mind, is that we remember, whether Republican or Democrat, we are foremost Americans. And as Americans, we have always overcome challenges when we put partisanship aside and solutions first."
 
Ridge said that he will remain in "public service," including his work for the disabled and for veterans, and also as a leader in trying to restore the GOP's luster.
 
"My desire and intention is to help my party craft solutions that both sides of the aisle can embrace," Ridge said. "My hope is to raise the level of civility in public debate and raise the bar on outcomes that serve our citizens fully, fairly and equally." He said that the GOP should rally around principles of limited government, lower taxes and competent government.

Toomey, who headed the conservative Club for Growth, is the only announced candidate for the GOP nomination. Moderates have mentioned other possibilities for a stop-Toomey candidate, including U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach or former United States Attorney Pat Meehan, but none of them has made a move – and Toomey's campaign is off to a fast start, raising $500,000 since he got in the race three weeks ago.

"Tom Ridge is a true patriot and a leader," Toomey said. "In his eloquent statement today, he said: 'My belief is that those in my home state can best be served by the principles of limited government, less taxes, competent governance and shared responsibility.' I agree with Governor Ridge's statement 100%. That is exactly the message I will carry to the people of Pennsylvania in my campaign for the U.S. Senate. It is a message that will not only unite the Republican Party, but more importantly, it is one that a majority of our fellow citizens can rally around, regardless of their party affiliation."

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.