On the steps of the Kankakee County Courthouse where his 35 years in public office began, Gov. George Ryan on Wednesday formally declared he would not seek the Republican nomination for a second term and lashed back at his conservative critics.

Ryan's move set in motion a scramble among potential Republican candidates as the governor issued a warning that his political party was endangered by catering to what he called the "hard right wing."

"I can take the heat," said Ryan, whose political ideology shifted from conservative to moderate as he achieved higher office, eventually encompassing support for gun control, homosexual rights and public funding of abortions for poor women.

"But I worry for the Republican Party-the party of Lincoln under whose banner I have proudly served all of my life. If we're to be successful, we need to listen more and shout less. We need to moderate our positions," he said.

"I learned a long time ago that winning public office is about addition and not subtraction, and I would hope that the party folks are listening," he said.

Republican leaders, including state GOP Chairman Rich Williamson, former Gov. James R. Thompson, state Senate President James "Pate" Philip and state House Minority leader Lee Daniels, all praised Ryan's progressive leadership during his 31 months as governor.

But many GOP officials said privately they were relieved when Ryan revealed his decision not to run at the end of a 31-minute speech, particularly since most of them had urged the politically vulnerable governor not to seek re-election.

Ryan aides said privately that after weeks of consideration the governor made his decision late Tuesday in the Executive Mansion in Springfield. But he did not inform his senior staff what he had decided until 2 p.m. Wednesday, as they boarded a state plane from Springfield to Kankakee.

"Believe me, he anguished over it," said Scott Fawell, Ryan's 1998 campaign manager who now heads the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. "He loves the job. It's a tough job to leave."

Addressing hundreds of state workers, Cabinet department directors, lawmakers, lobbyists, party officials and hometown friends who sat in the sweltering heat on the courthouse square, the governor issued a staunch defense of the controversial moves he had taken as Illinois chief executive.

"We tackled these challenges not because they were easy, but because they were hard," Ryan said. But he never addressed the licenses-for-bribes scandal that took place during his previous tenure as secretary of state, or the steady drumbeat of federal indictments of his former employees that followed him into the governor's office and clouded voter confidence.

In the end, the continuing convictions in the federal Operation Safe Road investigation only made it easier for critics to attack Ryan for controversial moves such as raising taxes and fees to pay for his massive sweeping Illinois FIRST public works program.

Ryan aides said the scandal played no role in his decision. But state Senate Democratic leader Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago, who termed Ryan a "very courageous governor," said there was little doubt in his mind the scandal was an overriding factor in the decision not to run.

"Had not it been for the previous administration of the secretary of state's office, he would have run for re-election, and he would have been a very formidable candidate," Jones said. "No question about that."

Still, the governor acknowledged he had become a flashpoint for controversy that would only intensify in a bitter election campaign. He said the challenges the state faces "require serious debate, a dialogue free from rancor or personal attacks about motives or character."

"And that's why the governorship should not become mired in the political divisions of a campaign year," Ryan said. "And that's why over the next 17 months I will . . . devote every ounce of my abilities to the challenges that Illinois faces and the duties of higher office that you've hired me to do.

"And that's why I will not be a candidate for Republican nomination for governor in the year 2002."

Ryan boldly took on his conservative Republican critics who had derided him on a variety of social and fiscal positions, including a visit to Cuba in hopes of easing the U.S. trade embargo with the Communist-led nation.

"People of Illinois want to reach out for their neighbors. They want new markets for their farmers, not outdated ideology. They want compassion for the poor. And I learned a long time ago that winning public office is about addition and not subtraction, and I would hope that the party folks are listening," he said.