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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The race for the leadership of Canada's Liberal Party was thrown wide open on Wednesday when its interim chief took his name out of the running, saying it was in the best interests of the party as it tries to regain its footing after last year's devastating election loss.
Veteran politician Bob Rae, 63, took on the caretaker role a year ago after the Liberals suffered their worst loss since Canada became a country in 1867, on the understanding he would not enter the race for the permanent position. Even so, he had been widely expected to throw his hat in the ring.
He told a news conference on Wednesday he would step aside for the good of the party.
His decision leaves Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as the potential candidate with the most name recognition. The party will chose its new leader next year.
Trudeau, 40, has said he would not run because of the time it would take him away from his young family, but many in Ottawa think he will change his mind.
"I haven't so far changed my decision not to run, but as you well know, I'm under an enormous amount of pressure from Canadians, journalists and Liberals who want me to consider it seriously," Trudeau told reporters after Rae's announcement.
The 2011 election reduced the center-left Liberals to the third-biggest party for the first time, with the Conservatives capturing a majority of seats and the New Democratic Party, to the left of the Liberals, emerging as the official opposition.
Reflecting on his party's weakened status, Rae said the Liberals should not be counted out.
"I have great optimism in the future of the Liberal Party and great optimism in the future of my country, but things will have to change for that to happen," he said.
Rae said the party would have "to get its act together" and come together behind an effective, forward-looking leader.
Rae is a formidable debater in both English and French, able to think on his feet on the floor of the House rather than reading from notes.
But he has carried political baggage from his days as premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995, when he led the provincial New Democratic Party. His high deficit spending and forced pay cuts for civil servants are still remembered two decades later.
Rae joined the Liberals in 2006 and later lost a party leadership bid to Michael Ignatieff, who led the party to its big defeat in last year's election.
Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney