Gov. John Kasich is only midway through his term, but a potentially formidable rival has already dropped out of next year's race for governor.

Former Gov. Ted Strickland, who narrowly lost his job to Kasich in 2010, announced Jan. 8 that he won't be mounting a comeback try. (See story on Page 21.) Strickland defended his record as governor -- "I believe my administration stood and spoke for the causes that count" -- and said that he would continue to remain active politically "to defeat anti-worker and anti-middle class legislation," but would not be returning to politics.

A run by Strickland would have set Kasich up for a rematch, a race that would have been hotly contested. Kasich's popularity took a major hit in 2011 during what proved to be a losing battle over collective bargaining, and Ohio proved to be solidly "blue" -- Democratic -- in last year's presidential election. While Strickland ran a lackluster race against Kasich two years ago, the former governor re-emerged during the battle over collective bargaining as an energized force of opposition. He would have been the front-runner for the nomination.

With Strickland out of the race, Democrats face a serious challenge in finding a standard-bearer for 2014. Potential candidates include U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who would have to give up a "safe" seat in the House to run for governor; former Attorney General Richard Cordray, who has won two statewide contests but also lost two, including his bid for another term as attorney general; and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald, an unknown quantity in terms of statewide appeal.

Democrats hold no statewide offices other than the Ohio Supreme Court seat held by Justice William O'Neill, a political maverick who won his seat with minimal help from the state party. That leaves the party with the task of finding not only a candidate for governor but filling the entire slate of statewide offices. Democrats historically have been unable to deny an incumbent GOP governor re-election; the last was Gov. C. William O'Neill, no relation to the high court justice, and that was in 1958.

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett said that whoever decides to challenge Kasich's record on job growth should think twice. "It will be hard for any Democrat to argue why he shouldn't continue to create jobs for hardworking Ohio families and put Ohio back on the right track," he said.

Democrats most likely would dispute that, but Strickland's exit from the race with Election Day 2014 nearly two years in the future could indicate that Kasich, whatever his popularity issues, isn't being viewed as a pushover if he decides he wants to renew his lease on the governor's office.