By Wade Rawlins
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina's Democratic Governor Bev Perdue announced she would not seek a second term on Thursday, giving in to falling poll numbers and a political image weakened by ethics questions and a revitalized Republican opposition.
Perdue, 65, a former school teacher with a doctorate in education administration, became the state's first female governor when she was elected in 2008, the same year Barack Obama wrested the traditionally red state from Republicans in the presidential election.
But her political fortunes quickly declined when her 2008 campaign became the focus of ongoing state and federal criminal investigations stemming from allegations of failing to report dozens of flights donated to the campaign.
Three campaign aides were indicted in state court last November on charges of obstruction of justice and making false reports. One of the aides, Peter Reichard, who served as Perdue's campaign finance director, pleaded guilty in December to a felony charge of obstruction of justice for his part in a scheme to funnel money from a Perdue contributor to another campaign aide.
"I don't think she could see a path to victory," said Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic political strategist based in Raleigh. "With her ethics problems, she was going to be a political piñata."
A poll conducted earlier this month by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling firm showed Perdue had 32 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval ratings with voters.
The poll showed her trailing likely Republican challenger Pat McCrory by double digits in a potential re-match of the 2008 gubernatorial race. Perdue beat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, by a thin margin four years ago.
Perdue's weakness as an incumbent already had prompted talk by Democratic state Representative Bill Faison of a possible primary challenge.
Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton announced on Thursday that he would enter the governor's race. Erskine Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, also has been mentioned as a potential candidate.
"Make no mistake about it, the Democratic Party will have no trouble selecting a strong gubernatorial candidate and we are confident we will win the governor's race next November," North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker said in a statement.
As governor, Perdue often clashed with state lawmakers after Republicans gained a majority in both legislative chambers in 2010.
She vetoed an unprecedented 15 pieces of legislation, including the state budget plus measures adding restrictions on abortion, requirements that voters produce identification and restrictions on the use of racial bias evidence to challenge death sentences.
Perdue previously served as lieutenant governor. She began her political career in the 1980s, first serving as a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and then spending five terms in the state Senate.
"We live in highly partisan times, where some people seem more worried about scoring political points than working together to address the real challenges our state faces," Perdue said in a statement.
"And it is clear to me that my race for re-election will only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools. A re-election campaign in this already divisive environment will make it more difficult to find any bipartisan solutions," she said.
(Reporting by Wade Rawlins; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Daniel Trotta)