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Ted Strickland Can Light Up a Room. Now What?

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland blew the party faithful away with his speech highlighting economic comeback stories in his home state.

But Strickland might as well have been talking about himself when he uttered these words: “You know, Vince Lombardi was right when he said, ‘It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.”

Since narrowly losing re-election last cycle, Strickland kept active in national politics — in part by serving as the president’s re-election campaign co-chairman. But his fiery speech last night only fueled speculation about the 71-year-old’s next move.

Ohio Democrats say there are two obvious paths for Strickland: He could challenge Gov. John Kasich (R) to a rematch in 2014 or serve in the Cabinet if President Barack Obama is elected to a second term. Regardless, Democrats would be hard-pressed to find a former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter who has more effectively cemented his status in the Obama orbit.

“Ted Strickland would make a great anything,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said Tuesday. “He’s got executive experience. He’s got legislative experience. He’s got a ton of contacts.”

Last night, Ohio delegates donned blue “We love Ted” buttons at the Fox and the Hound bar for their post-gavel party. The crowd cheered as Strickland’s speech replayed on cable news. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern shot his pool cue the air when Strickland called out his made-for-soundbite line of the night: “If Mitt Romney was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves!”

Strickland played the party’s bull dog, giving the crowd a heaping portion of partisanship. It was an unusual tactic for the populist preacher, who struck a more moderate tone in his gubernatorial bids in competitive Ohio.

His partisan rhetoric made Democrats question whether Strickland would prefer a position in the Cabinet — Transportation or Commerce secretary — instead of a rematch with Kasich.

But Strickland’s red-meat speech might serve another purpose if he runs again statewide. Black voters, especially around Cleveland, have proved Strickland’s weak point in Ohio Democratic politics. As one operative suggested, “Last night probably cured all of that.”

Strickland told the Columbus Dispatch this week that he’s not sure what he’s going to do yet. In the meantime, other Democrats, such as Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, are looking at the race. A former FBI agent, FitzGerald made a name for himself cleaning up a notoriously corrupt county government.

Democrats also mentioned Ryan, who toyed with replacing former Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher on the 2010 Senate ballot. In a Tuesday interview with Roll Call, Ryan said he’d consider another statewide bid after November. But two sources said Ryan started to notify Democrats a couple of weeks ago that he doesn’t want to run statewide next cycle. They added Ryan would never challenge Strickland in a primary.

“In this business, you have to keep all your options open,” Ryan said. “Strickland is a really dear friend of mine, and I think he’s been out and about and obviously would be ‘the guy’ if he choose to do it again.”

Whoever does challenge Kasich could start fundraising and campaigning as soon as five months from now, according to Redfern. Fundraising is also a challenge in the Buckeye State, which doesn’t allow exploratory committees and sets an individual donation limit of about $11,500.

“It’s one of the realities of a post-Citizens United political world,” Redfern said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if $20 million was the starting point rather than the finishing.”