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WASHINGTON – Susan E. Rice, the embattled U.N. ambassador, abruptly withdrew from consideration to be the next secretary of state on Thursday after a long, bitter standoff with Republican senators who declared they would fight to defeat her nomination.

The reluctant announcement makes Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry the likely choice to be the nation’s next top diplomat when Hillary Rodham Clinton departs soon. Rice withdrew when it became clear her political troubles were not going away, and support inside the White House for her potential nomination had been waning in recent days, administration officials said.

In another major part of the upcoming Cabinet shake-up for President Obama’s second term, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska now is seen as the front-runner to be defense secretary, with official word expected as soon as next week.

For the newly re-elected president, Rice’s withdrawal was a sharp political setback and a sign of the difficulties Obama faces in a time of divided and divisive government. Already, he had been privately weighing whether picking Rice would cost him political capital he would need on later votes.

When Rice ended the embarrassment by stepping aside, Obama used the occasion to criticize Republicans who were adamantly opposed to her possible nomination.

“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character,” he said.

“I am saddened we have reached this point,” Rice said.

Obama made clear she would remain in his inner circle, saying he was grateful she would stay as “our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my Cabinet and national security team.” Rice, too, said in her letter she would be staying.

Rice had become the face of the bungled administration account of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012 when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.

Obama had defiantly declared he would chose her for secretary of state regardless of the political criticism, if he wanted, but such a choice could have gotten his second term off to an even more turbulent start with Capitol Hill.

In a letter to Obama, Rice said she was convinced the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly.” The letter was part of a media rollout aimed at upholding her reputation. It included an NBC News interview in which she said her withdrawal “was the best thing for our country.”

Rice may end up close to Obama’s side in another way, as his national security adviser should Tom Donilon move to another position, though that is not expected imminently. The security adviser post would not require Senate confirmation.

Rice has faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans who challenged her much-maligned televised comments about the cause of the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Her efforts to satisfy Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill fell short. The Republicans emerged from the meetings still expressing doubts about her qualifications.

“The position of secretary of state should never be politicized,” Rice said. “As someone who grew up in an era of comparative bipartisanship and as a sitting U.S national security official who has served in two U.S. administrations, I am saddened that we have reached this point.”

Attention now shifts to Kerry, who came close to winning the presidency in 2004 and has been seen as desiring the State job. Obama has dispatched Kerry to foreign hot spots on his behalf, including to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The longtime senator would be almost certain to be easily confirmed by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

If Obama taps Kerry for State, the president will create a potential problem for Democrats by opening a Senate seat – one that recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown is eyeing. Brown had been elected as Massachusetts’ other senator in January 2010 after Democrat Edward M. Kennedy died, stunning the political world as he took the seat held by Kennedy for decades. Brown lost that seat in the November election.

House Democratic women had cast the criticism of Rice as sexist and racist – she is African-American – and some expressed disappointment with the news.

“If judged fairly based solely on her qualifications for the job, she would’ve made an extraordinary secretary of state,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rice did not have a strong relationship with members of the Senate. Graham, top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid and the State Department, said he barely knew her.

Rice’s decision comes ahead of the anticipated release next week of a report by an Accountability Review Board into the attack on the Benghazi mission.

Rice has conceded in private meetings with lawmakers that her initial account – that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. triggered the attack – was wrong, but she has insisted she was not trying to mislead the American people.