OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Veteran Rep. Ernest J. Istook said Monday he is leaving Congress to run for governor of his home state, a post now held by Democrat Brad Henry.
Flanked by supporters and members of his family at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Istook said he came to the decision after long and ``prayerful'' deliberations with his wife, Judy.
``I am running to become governor of Oklahoma, and I intend to win,'' Istook said.
Istook stressed the importance of leading Oklahoma to prosperity through job creation and a focus on education that emphasized the role of parents in the lives of students.
``We should never discuss education without discussing parents,'' he said.
Earlier Monday, Istook said his decision had nothing to do with losing his chairmanship of the subcommittee that oversees highway funding.
``This is unrelated. This has to do with Oklahoma's leadership needs. It's something that has always been in my heart to do,'' he told The Associated Press shortly before his formal announcement.
He said he expected a hard-fought campaign against Henry, who has had high approval ratings in public opinion polls.
``It's a challenge when you take on an incumbent, but people are very unclear about what he stands for other than taxes and gambling,'' said Istook, 55, a political conservative who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1992 and is in his seventh term.
He was referring to Henry's support of a state lottery to raise money for education and a tobacco tax increase to raise money for health care. Both issues were overwhelmingly approved by a vote of the people last November after Henry pushed referendums through the Legislature.
``I think it is going to be a very forthright campaign,'' said Istook. ``Oklahoma has the right kind of people and the right kind of resources, but we don't yet have the right kind of leadership to make the progress we are capable of making.''
Istook, who was elected to Congress in 1992, this year lost his chairmanship of the Transportation and Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee in a reorganization that reduced the number of budget subcommittees from 13 to 10.
Istook angered many of his subcommittee members by withholding funding for their home-state projects after they pushed for Amtrak funding, which Istook opposed.
The congressman was holding news conferences Monday in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He planned announcements on Tuesday in Ada, Ardmore, Lawton, Clinton, Enid, Ponca City, Stillwater and Bartlesville.
Henry has said he will seek re-election to a second term. He is attempting to become only the third Oklahoma governor to win back-to-back terms. Henry has enjoyed high approval ratings in public opinion polls.
Already running for the GOP nomination are Sen. James Williamson, R-Tulsa, and Robert Sullivan, a Tulsa oilman. Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson, who ran in 2002 as an independent, also has said he may run again as a Republican.
Meanwhile, Democrat Jack Mildren, a former lieutenant governor and star quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners, is considering coming off the political sidelines to challenge for the 5th Congressional District post now held by Istook.
A former oilman, Mildren is currently a bank official and has been doing sports analysis on radio and for the Fox television network.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin has also said she would consider running for Istook's seat should he run for governor.
Republicans hold four of the state's five congressional posts.
Lisa Pryor, state Democratic chairwoman, said Henry is in good shape for re-election and has an approval rating of 70 percentage points in one poll.
``All indications are that the governor is very, very strong _ that the people of Oklahoma approve of what he has done,'' she said. ``He has made education and health care a priority and I think Oklahomans are going to be very eager to return him for a second term.''
State Republican Chairman Gary Jones said he thinks Henry's support ``is shallow'' and the incumbent can be beaten by a good Republican candidate. He said Istook is a strong candidate ``but not the only (Republican) candidate.''