COLUMBUS - Democrat Ted Strickland announced Tuesday he will not run again for governor in 2014, removing a key competitor to incumbent Republican John Kasich from the field.
The departure of Strickland, 70, from the race leaves a field of potential Democratic challengers to Kasich that includes Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, former congresswoman Betty Sutton, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and national consumer watchdog Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general.
FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and Lakewood mayor, was elected in 2010 to lead a new county executive-council government in Ohio's most populous county to replace a scandal-plagued commissioner form. He told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer he's set no date for a decision but Strickland's move "kind of accelerates things."
Ryan is a six-term congressman from the Youngstown area first elected to Congress in 2002. He issued a statement Tuesday saying he'll make his decision "in the near future."
Sutton is in the job market after losing her re-election bid last year to another incumbent after her district was eliminated in redistricting. She previously served three terms.
"There's a pretty deep bench of Democrats out there," said Brian Rothenberg, who directs ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group. "So this really will be an election about John Kasich and whether he can control the extremists in his party, and whether he can control himself, given his penchant of gaffes."
Kasich has hinted he'll run again, but has made no formal announcement.
"When the time comes, the governor will be very comfortable holding up his record of how Ohio has gotten back on track and has begun to thrive again in the past two years," said spokesman Rob Nichols. "There's a lot of work still to do, however, and getting Ohio moving again will continue to be his focus."
Citing education, infrastructure and affordable health care as among priorities he fought for, Strickland said in a statement Tuesday that he stands by his record of success as governor and will not seek the office again.
"My administration stood and spoke for the causes that count," he said, commending members of his former administration as he stepped aside.
Kasich, a former investment banker and congressman, unseated Strickland as he sought a second term in 2010. It was among the most expensive governor's races in Ohio history, with combined spending approaching $34 million.
During the 2010 campaign, both Strickland and Kasich told voters that their approach could best fix the state's ailing economy. The once-proud manufacturing state had lost some 400,000 jobs between 2007 and 2010, and unemployment stood at 10 percent.
Since Kasich's taken office, a projected state budget gap of as much as $8 billion has been closed and unemployment has fallen steadily to below 7 percent.
Though Democrats attribute much of that rebound to the policies of President Barack Obama, including the bailout of the auto industry vital to the state, it was widely expected that Kasich could use the economic rebound in any campaign against Strickland.
Strickland noted the economic backdrop in Tuesday's statement.
"In many ways, this has been a very difficult decision," he said. "I look back fondly on my time as Ohio's 68th governor - and am proud of my administration's efforts to guide our state through the greatest national economic crisis since the Great Depression."
Tying the once-popular Strickland to the Obama administration in 2010 was among Kasich's winning strategies. Kasich won the race 49 to 47 percent.
Strickland "laid the foundation for our economic recovery, all while preserving the state's social safety net, passing a budget with unanimous, bipartisan backing, championing transparency, and supporting schools and communities from every corner of Ohio," state Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said.
In a statement, Redfern added, "Now that Gov. Strickland has announced his intentions, strong Democratic officeholders that are prepared to hold this administration accountable for its anti-worker, anti-woman agenda that has unfairly skyrocketed local taxes can begin earnestly exploring why only 36 percent of Ohioans believe Gov. John Kasich deserves to be re-elected."
Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said anyone who's thinking about challenging Kasich's economic record should think twice.
"Ohio has made giant leaps in progress in two short years under John Kasich and it will be hard for any Democrat to argue why he shouldn't continue to create jobs for hardworking Ohio families," Bennett said.
Strickland said he and wife Frances "will continue to be politically active private citizens. We will continue to stand with working men and women to build a stronger Ohio - and to defeat anti-worker and anti-middle-class legislation that may arise."
Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.