ALBANY, Nov. 13 — Gov. Eliot Spitzer is abandoning his plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, saying that opposition is just too overwhelming to move forward with such a policy.
The governor, who is to announce the move formally on Wednesday, said in an interview Tuesday night that he did not reach the decision easily.
“You have perhaps seen me struggle with it because I thought we had a principled decision, and it’s not necessarily easy to back away from trying to move a debate forward,” he said.
But he came to believe the proposal would ultimately be blocked, he said, either by legal challenges, a vote by the Legislature to deny financing for the Department of Motor Vehicles or a refusal by upstate county clerks to carry it out.
“I am not willing to fight to the bitter end on something that will not ultimately be implemented,” the governor said, “and we also have an enormous agenda on other issues of great importance to New York State that was being stymied by the constant and almost singular focus on this issue.”
Mr. Spitzer’s plan touched off a national debate over whether issuing licenses to illegal immigrants would make the state more secure or improperly extend a privilege to them that should be reserved for legal residents.
Opposition to the proposal sent his poll numbers plunging and stalled his broader agenda.
The decision is likely to be a relief to many of his fellow Democrats in Albany and in Washington, who feared the issue could haunt them into next year’s election season.
In the interview, the governor sounded disappointed but resigned. He acknowledged that he would be criticized for changing course on the issue for the second time in three weeks. (“You think so?” he said facetiously when a reporter suggested as much.)
“Part of leadership is listening to the public’s opposition,” he said. “Having heard that, and assessed the realities of implementing this policy, part of leadership is realizing that getting results is more important than sticking to what may be a principled position.”
Mr. Spitzer first unveiled his initiative in September, when he announced that the Department of Motor Vehicles would begin issuing driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status and said he wanted to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows.”
But the proposal, which was formulated with scant consultation with other politicians, set off a backlash far greater than the administration had anticipated.
So late last month, the governor shifted course and said the state would offer three tiers of licenses: a limited driver’s license that illegal immigrants could obtain, which could not be used for boarding planes or crossing borders; a secure, federally recognized license known as Real ID, which would be available only to legal residents; and an even more secure identification for people who travel across the border to Canada frequently, which would comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
But the revised plan pleased almost no one.
On Tuesday night, the governor said the state would make the third tier of license available for frequent border crossers, and continue offering the same driver’s license it offers now, but not extend eligibility for it to illegal immigrants.
He said the state would put on hold the plan to adopt the Real ID, which has been championed by the Bush administration. The governor said he wanted to wait until federal regulations for Real ID licenses were issued next year before deciding how to proceed.
Mr. Spitzer’s decision to abandon his plan comes as a poll released Tuesday by Siena College found that seven in 10 New York voters who had heard about it — and more than 80 percent of the 625 registered voters polled had — opposed it. It also found that for the first time, more people viewed the governor unfavorably than favorably.
The governor and his aides said that they were not reacting to the slumping poll numbers, but acting pragmatically. That the dispute had even tripped up Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stumbled to answer a question about it in a presidential debate, “was symptomatic of where we were,” he said.
“The issue was gaining traction not based on thoughtful discourse, but based on sound bites and less than careful analysis,” he added.
Mr. Spitzer’s latest shift is likely to further complicate his relations with Hispanic lawmakers, who heartily supported his original policy but were upset when he moved to a three-tier system. Some felt that offering a lesser tier of license to illegal immigrants would stigmatize them and attract the suspicions of law enforcement.
“I stood up on a very tough issue,” the governor said. “I may not have succeeded in implementing the policy they desired, but I didn’t hesitate to stand up when not many have done so.”
The governor said he hoped the storm would pass and that the state would be able to begin tackling other issues.
Even before the license plan was unveiled, he and Republican lawmakers were locked in a standoff, some of it over policy but much of it the result of a feud between the governor and Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader.
Asked how his new position would be received, Mr. Spitzer responded: “The reaction will be what it is.”