An emotional Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced Monday that she will not seek re-election next year, signaling the end of a tenure that brought her the highest popularity ratings in Connecticut history and setting off a scramble to replace her when she steps down in January 2011.

Rell gave no specific reason for her stunning announcement, saying only that "it's time" to leave high-level public office after a long career that includes more than five years as governor, 10 years as lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

Rell choked up several times as she recounted exchanges with state voters who offered a simple thank you for her work in office.

"I love being governor, and I love the people of Connecticut," Rell said at a hastily called news conference. "The challenges of the job have been — and continue to be — many. The rewards are incalculable. But, at some point, you know inside that it is time to begin a new chapter in life."

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele said immediately after Rell's announcement that she has told him privately that she will support him — even if there are other Republican candidates in a potential primary in August 2010. Fedele reiterated his longtime stance that he would run for governor if Rell did not.

Rell's departure from the race leaves a wide-open battle in which some potential candidates believe that the field is evenly matched. "With the governor out, within a percentage point or two, everybody's in the same boat," said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk, who is considering running.

'Very, Very Proud'

In an emotional speech in front of about 25 reporters, camera operators, and staff members in her state Capitol office, Rell said she still has "a lot of governing to do" over the next 14 months.

With unemployment increasing, the state budget has a projected deficit as high as $624 million, and Rell expects continued clashes with the Democratic-controlled legislature.

During a press conference, which reporters were notified of only 45 minutes in advance, Rell said it has been "an honor" to serve the state. She cited accomplishments including ethics and campaign finance reform and noted that in 2004 she "came in at a troubling time in our state's history."

That was a reference to her ascension from lieutenant governor on July 1, 2004, after the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland during a long-running corruption scandal that later sent him to federal prison for 10 months.

"We had been through much and we needed a new start, a renewed sense of faith in public officials and a recommitment to integrity in our government," Rell said. "Working together, we steadied our state, and we passed landmark ethics reform and campaign finance reform legislation. And I am very, very proud of that."

Although many political insiders have been debating for years whether Rell would run in 2010, few actually knew for sure. That small handful included Rell's immediate family. Even they, though, did not know the timing. Rell said she told her daughter only about one hour before the press conference with reporters, and she called her husband, Lou, from the Capitol to say that Monday would be the day.

As Rell's press conference at 5 p.m. approached, the state Capitol became eerily quiet. The subject of the news conference remained a mystery, and many of the lights had been turned down in the Capitol on a late Monday afternoon.

Mid-level employees on Rell's staff came out into the main hallway from the governor's back offices on the Capitol's fourth floor.

Word began to spread that Rell's family was arriving at the Capitol, an unusual occurrence and one that indicated there would be a personal announcement. Outside the governor's office on the second floor, Fedele was talking on his cellphone with a state trooper standing nearby.

Minutes later, Rell began the startling news conference that broke the calm of a Monday evening at the Capitol with a typically folksy thank you to those who participated in a Thanksgiving food drive in recent days.

Dressed in a black business suit, she walked into the room with a smile on her face and no one trailing her to the lectern — making it seem that it could be just another announcement. That continued when she talked about the food drive, but then she sharply switched gears.

"The second thing I'd like to do is I want to share with you the news that, after much soul-searching and discussion with my family, I have decided not to seek re-election next year," Rell said as the room became quiet.

Those few words are already setting off a major scramble among Republican hopefuls including Fedele, Cafero and Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Southport. Despite being a close friend of Fedele's, Cafero said Monday night that he is definitely considering running for governor.

McKinney, who turned down a chance to run this year for Congress, said he was "honestly surprised" at Rell's decision and had not thought of running. But now "I certainly will talk to people within the party" to be sure the GOP produces its best candidate and "if people think that candidate is me, I certainly would consider it," he said.