Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced Tuesday that he would not run as an independent for governor. (Steve Helber/AP)

Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced Tuesday that he would not run for governor as an independent, ending a months-long tease that threatened to shake up an unpredictable race.

By staying on the sidelines, Bolling leaves Virginia with a stark choice — between a tea party icon and a Bill Clinton buddy — to succeed term-limited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Bolling had sought to position himself as the moderate option between Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. His decision to stay out of the contest is generally seen as a plus for Cuccinelli, although some observers say he could have hurt McAuliffe by splintering the anti-Cuccinelli vote.

“A three-way race would have been a very muddy affair,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Now we’re back to a two-way race, but there’s no front-runner.”

Bolling had been mulling an independent bid since dropping out of the race for the GOP nomination in late November. He conceded then that he was unlikely to beat Cuccinelli after the attorney general’s supporters pulled off a switch in the party’s nomination process, scrapping an agreed-upon open primary for a closed party convention.

At the time, Bolling declined to endorse Cuccinelli, suggesting that the attorney general and McAuliffe were too extreme for the state. He said he might run as an “independent Republican.”

But Bolling said he was dissuaded by the challenge of raising money, the emotional tug of the GOP and a personal desire to pull back from an ugly political environment, he wrote in his e-mail.

“While I still value public service a great deal, the truth is that I just don’t find the political process to be as enjoyable as I once did,” his message said. “Because of this, I decided that the time has come for me to step away from elected office and look for other ways to serve Virginia.”

By pulling back from what party leaders would have considered a treasonous act, Bolling may have preserved his ability to run with Republican backing in the future. But he must repair relationships strained by his flirtation with independence.

Bolling, who declined to be interviewed, did not endorse either candidate in his e-mail. He wished them both well in a way that could be seen as a parting jab at Cuccinelli because he names McAuliffe first.

“I think Bill is understandably hurting,” said Tom Davis, a Republican who represented Northern Virginia in Congress. “He’s waited his turn; they changed the rules on him. Who wouldn’t be upset with that?”

Bolling’s decision left some Republican business leaders in Northern Virginia deflated — and looking for another independent. Those who have objected to Cuccinelli’s focus on social issues were put off last month when he opposed the General Assembly’s $1.4 billion-a-year transportation funding bill. Bolling and McAuliffe support it.

“There’s still time for somebody else to get in,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Arlington County-based Consumer Electronics Association. Shapiro said he will try to recruit Donald W. Upson, who served as secretary of technology under former governor James S. Gilmore III (R). Upson did not respond to a message seeking comment. Shapiro had prevailed upon Davis, who has said he is focused on his wife’s campaign for lieutenant governor.

Cuccinelli and McAuliffe released statements praising Bolling — and linking themselves to him. Cuccinelli’s referred to the “McDonnell, Bolling, Cuccinelli team.” McAuliffe, who has sought to position himself as a middle-of-the-road candidate, used the word “mainstream” four times in his three-paragraph statement to describe his views or Bolling’s.

Bolling’s threatened independent run always had doubters. A longtime party loyalist with a mild manner, he made for an unlikely rebel. Even when he started stepping out as an “independent voice,” many observers thought he was just sticking it to the party that had jilted him.

Some naysayers became believers as the public positions the former Hanover County supervisor and state senator took became increasingly daring. His first big announcement, against lifting the ban on uranium mining, put him out in front of McDonnell, who has yet to take a position; but he did so with the support of Southside Republicans. As time went on, Bolling bucked the governor’s comments about arming teachers, opposed the GOP’s Senate redistricting plan and supported expanding Medicaid.

Bolling’s critics said he was too passive, letting McDonnell run for the nomination unopposed four years ago and allowing Cuccinelli to outmaneuver him in the convention switch. Bolling hung on for a few months after that. He spent that time not plotting a convention upset, but hoping Mitt Romney would win the presidency and pick McDonnell for a Cabinet position. That would have elevated Bolling and given him the advantage of incumbency. But Romney lost.

Bolling went away March 5 for a week-long vacation in the Bahamas, where he and his wife made their final decision. He was said to have been seeking donations until he boarded the plane. A strategist said the financial hurdles were just too daunting in a race that would require at least $10 million to $15 million.

“You knew where the first few million were coming from, but 3 or 5 million doesn’t get you what you need,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal deliberations.

Bolling’s campaign sent word of his decision late Tuesday morning, while he was on his way back from the Bahamas. That was two days before his self-imposed Thursday deadline, which he had announced last month.

“I don’t think anybody’s been this precise in choosing the date since LeBron James did the ESPN program announcing he was going to ditch Cleveland for Miami,” said one GOP Capitol insider. “Now they canceled the show.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.