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 Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan among top potential Democrats who could challenge Kasich next year.
FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and Lakewood mayor, was elected in 2010 to lead a new county executive-council government Ohio's most populous county to replace a scandal-plagued commissioner form. Ryan is a six-term congressman from the Youngstown area first elected to Congress in 2002.
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.
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.''
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said, 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. Theres a lot of work still to do, however, and getting Ohio moving again will continue to be his focus.
Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said anyone whos thinking about challenging Kasichs 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 shouldnt 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 Tom Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.