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Ted Richardson, Associated Press
Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt speaks to the media at the Marriott hotel in downtown Greensboro, N.C. on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, before The North Carolina Democratic Party's Sanford-Hunt-Frye Dinner.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Saturday that her decision not to seek re-election was the "most selfless decision I've ever made" but said it was necessary to press for more education funding during her last year in office.

The Democrat, speaking to reporters for the first time since announcing she wouldn't seek a second term, said she cares more deeply about children and education than any election and didn't want her recent proposal to raise the state sales tax to become the dividing line in a re-election campaign.

"I am absolutely committed to spending the rest of my life fighting for public schools and access to public education for every child in this state," Perdue said before a fundraising dinner attended by several hundred Democrats in Greensboro. "I did not want to be seen as someone who was partisan, who was trying to use this as a wedge to win re-election. It's much more important to me than being governor — this fight for education."

The 65-year-old Perdue, the state's first female governor, was likely facing a tough rematch against former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican. She released a statement Thursday saying she wouldn't run again because she didn't want to further politicize her policy fight with the Republican-led Legislature over public education and the appropriate level of spending.

Earlier this month, Perdue proposed a three-quarter-penny increase in the sales tax to restore spending cuts from last summer and to close a projected budget gap caused by the loss of federal education dollars. Republicans, who already let a temporary, Perdue-backed penny increase in the state sales tax from 2009 expire last summer, dismissed her idea as a tax increase and called it a non-starter.

The GOP is in charge of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 140 years, and Perdue vetoed a record 16 bills last year.

On Saturday, she lamented the more partisan tone in North Carolina. She said that Republican legislative leaders "would rather win a political fight than have an industry come to counties in North Carolina" — a reference to a squabble over an economic development deal that fell through in the southeastern part of the state.

"I've never seen such rabid partisanship," Perdue said. "I've never seen such divisiveness."

But she also vowed that she would spend her last 11 months in office going to every corner of the state to talk about protecting public education and wage "the biggest battle of my life" while hoping Democrats would win big victories in November.

The governor reinforced similar themes in her brief speech at the dinner Saturday night, where she got a standing ovation and cheers from party activists holding "We Love Bev" signs as she took the stage. She urged Democrats to work hard for the next 9½ months.

"I am going to take this message to the people," she said to applause. "Get ready for a fight."

North Carolina Republican Party spokesman Rob Lockwood wrote in an email that Perdue doesn't have a leg to stand on when it comes to being apolitical after a 2008 campaign in which he said "she championed the politics of personal destruction." Now, he said, Perdue is misleading the public about exaggerated education cuts.

Perdue's "claim about not running because of politics doesn't pass a straight face test," Lockwood said.

Her departure means a wide-open May 8 gubernatorial primary that has already attracted two candidates. State Rep. Bill Faison made his official announcement Saturday morning at the Greensboro hotel where the Sanford-Hunt-Frye dinner was held. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton entered the contest Thursday. Several other Democrats are weighing bids, and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Perdue's decision means a sitting North Carolina governor won't serve a second consecutive term since voters gave chief executives the ability to succeed themselves 35 years ago. It comes as Charlotte prepares to host the Democratic National Convention this summer.

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, who served four terms, on Saturday praised Perdue, whom he mentored.

"I've just admired the things she's done so much and appreciate it so much," Hunt said. "And now we will work to find another good education governor to build the economy of North Carolina and help us have an exciting and productive future."

Perdue joked with fellow Democrats that she told her husband that people were treating her like she had a terminal disease "and I was on my way out."

"Let me tell you one thing — I am not on my way out," Perdue told the crowd.