East Haddam — (Updated) “This is my moment to step aside,” Chris Dodd proclaimed Wednesday as he ended a 30-year career in the U.S. Senate — and shook up the race to succeed him.

The five-term incumbent made the official announcement, leaked overnight, at a packed noon press conference outside his East Haddam home. He said he won’t run for reelection this year.

He had been running hard; he originally had an event scheduled at the same time Wednesday to meet with Latino leaders at New Haven’s Casa Otonal housing complex. But ethics scandals and a general dissatisfaction with incumbents kept chipping away at Dodd’s popularity until he finally gave up..

Dodd Wednesday claimed that his sagging poll ratings did not in themselves force him out of the race. It was a combination of factors, he said, including his bout with cancer last summer and the death of his “beloved sister” in July.

“Together,” Dodd said, “these challenges have given me pause, to take stock, and ask questions … Why am I running?”

Dodd was surrounded by family and friends on the steps of his home, a former schoolhouse built in 1854 on the banks of the Connecticut River, as he addressed the 100 reporters and photographers in attendance. His two daughters, Gracie (pictured) and Christine, 8 and 4 respectively, stood close by him. Gracie looked at his written-out speech as he read it; her face lit up as she saw her name and Dodd spoke of spending more time with his family.

A protester in a “Dump Dodd” T-shirt stood outside the white picket fence, meanwhile, with a supersized tripod, videotaping the event.

The protester, Jim Bancroft (pictured), promised to be polite but said he couldn’t help “gloating.”

“People of the state of Connecticut have spoken,” Bancroft said. “He’s reading the tea leaves.”

U.S. Rep. John Larson was there, too. He offered a different take on Dodd’s departure.

“The loss to Connecticut is staggering,” said Larson, a Democrat. He praised “the soul and compassion that this man has brought to government.”

“It’s evidence that people of the state of Connecticut have spoken,” said Bancroft, who lives in Bristol. “He’s reading the tea leaves.” (Click here for a report on an encounter Bancroft had with Dodd in August.)

Grace Under Fire

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Even as voters turned on the once-popular Dodd, he maintained his good humor and perspective. (Click here and on the play arrow for a recent interview at the Senate for an example.) That spirit continued at Wednesday’s announcement, as Dodd put his decision to retire in perspective .

“None of us is irreplacable,” Dodd said. “None of us are indispensable. Anyone who thinks otherwise is dangerous.”

That perspective was a marked contrast to other incumbents who turned bitter at being challenged or seeing old allies disagree with them (such as fellow Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006). It was a contrast to the importance many elected officials put on their own continuation in office — for instance, when Rudy Giuliani considered canceling New York City mayoral elections after 9-11 to keep himself in office.

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Click the play arrow to watch Dodd’s eight-minute retirement announcement.

A Brand New Day

Dodd’s announcement immediately shook up both national and statewide political landscapes.

He was the latest of several prominent Democrats choosing not to run for reelection in what promises to be a tough year for the party.

At the same time, Democrats loyal to Dodd barely concealed their glee at the announcement of Dodd’s decision not to seek reelection. Many in the party had openly wished for him to step down because of his sagging popularity. Now they have a stronger candidate: Attorney General Dick Blumenthal. Blumenthal planned to make official his plan to seek Dodd’s seat at a 2:30 press conference of his own.

Blumenthal has a stratospheric 78 percent approval rating in Connecticut, and only a 13 percent disapproval rating. Before today, Blumenthal had signaled that he planned to run for Senate in 2012 — when the term of another incumbent Connecticut’s other senator, Joe Lieberman, expires.

Three Republicans seeking Dodd’s seat, two of them new to politics, had been running ahead of him. They focused on his ethical controversies, among other issues.

“I think it’s a very different race” now, said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. “Dick Blumenthal is a proven vote-getter, a popular politician. Most importantly people trust him. In many respects the campaign was not shaping up as one of change, but one of trust, between Dodd and the Republicans. Dick Blumenthal provides a pretty powerful answer to that anecdote.”

Within hours of the news breaking this morning, a new poll came out showing Blumenthal clobbering the Republicans in the race. Click here for the release from Public Policy Polling, which conducted it. “Chris Dodd’s retirement has shifted one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable seats to one of their safest,” the North Carolina-based outfit stated in a release.

The poll was conducted last week. It asked Connecticut voters about what was then a hypothetical Blumenthal candidacy. The results: Blumenthal topped Republicans Rob Simmons 59-28; Linda McMahon 60-28; and Peter Schiff 63-23.

Republicans spun the news differently from DeStefano, of course, in releases issued Wednesday.

After “welcoming” Dick Blumenthal to the race, Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon portrayed him as another “career politician” like Dodd.

“It’s clear people have lost faith in Washington, and they do not believe the way to change Washington is to replace one career politician with another — particularly a candidate backed by the political establishment,” she said.

“Now that there is an open seat, I see an even better opportunity for Connecticut to elect a Republican to the Senate in November,” argued Tom Foley, who originally planned to run against Dodd, then switched to run for governor instead.

Another Democrat is also seeking the nomination, Merrick Alpert. He campaigned at a Plainville food pantry Wednesday morning while the nation’s media focused on Dodd and Blumenthal. He said he will “absolutely” remain in the race.

“While some of the players may change, the issues facing the people of Connecticut don’t,” Alpert said. He will need a new brand of soap, though; click here to read about that.

An independent take came from labor leader Leo Canty. He called Blumenthal a “great guy” but doubted he, or any other candidate, could waltz into the Senate and wield the kind of power Dodd did after accumulating three decades of seniority.

“Dick Blumenthal is a great guy,” said Canty, vice-president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “But is he going to walk in and step in Dodd’s shoes and make the same kinds of decisions and move the same kind of agenda? No. No matter who gets elected, they will not be able to take Dodd’s power with them.”

Meanwhile, Dodd’s decision — along with the decision by incumbent Gov. M. Jodi Rell not to seek reelection this year — opens the gates to a generation of Baby Boomers waiting to advance in state politics. At least ten candidates are running for governor. now some of them, such as Democrats Susan Bysiewicz and Dan Malloy, will decide whether to stay in that race, or pursue the less competitive race for the now-open attorney general’s office.