BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Here's a little pre-election experiment for Cincinnati voters to try:
Sit down right now, get a pad and pencil, and write down the names of nine Cincinnati City Council candidates you believe you could bring yourself to vote for - even if you have to swallow hard to do it.
Remember, you have nine votes to play with, and there are 18 candidates to choose from. Nine are incumbents; nine are not.
And in this experiment, you have to write down nine names.
OK, then, take a hard look at your list. Let's say you consider yourself a loyal Democrat, a true-blue supporter of the party of Jefferson and Jackson, who would vote for a yellow dog if he had a ''D'' behind his name.
The absolute most Democrats you could have on your list is seven, because that is how many endorsed Democratic candidates there are for city council. If you have played by the rules and written nine names, at least two are Charterites or, heaven forbid, Republicans.
The same goes for you diehard Republicans. You, too, have only seven endorsed Republican candidates, and you'll have to break ranks to find your nine.
If you consider yourself a Charterite, you're used to this, because you never have nine Charter candidates to choose from. This year, you have but three.
Now the good news for you dedicated partisans out there is that on Tuesday, when you go to the polls for the real thing, you don't have to use all nine of your votes, and chances are you won't.
The political scientists say the average Cincinnati voter casts 6.5 votes in a council race. There aren't many people out there sweating bullets at the ballot box, trying to come up with the names of nine people they think are not totally worthless.
Tuesday, there will be people outside most polling places in Cincinnati who are hired by the parties at the rate of about $50 for the day passing out sample ballots, colorful little pieces of scrap paper that suggest you go in and vote a straight party ticket.
Chances are, you won't.
And why should you?
Political parties in Cincinnati, with their poll workers and sample ballots, still try futilely to enforce party discipline among the voters when they can't even begin to enforce it among their own candidates.
What does it mean to be a Republican or Democrat candidate for city council in 1997? You tell us.
Cincinnati will be wiped out by a tsunami before the Republican Party ever elects a five-member majority to Cincinnati City Council; and, down at Republican headquarters, they know that full well.
This term - with three Republicans, five Democrats and one Charterite on council - the GOP's only hope of having a voice at City Hall was to form an alliance with compliant Democrats, and they found them in Dwight Tillery and Minette Cooper, who played Tonto to Mr. Tillery's Lone Ranger. They formed a coalition with the Republicans and have, in recent months, gotten their way at City Hall.
Then, when Republican Phil Heimlich started running radio ads in Cincinnati's black community touting his relationship with Mr. Tillery and what they've gotten done together, Mr. Tillery started shedding crocodile tears about how unfair it was that Mr. Heimlich was piggybacking on his popularity with black voters.
But every time he had a chance to do something about it, Mr. Tillery would cancel a press conference, scrap a radio ad responding to Mr. Heimlich or generally dive for cover.
All of which made a lot of Democratic Party types wonder if Mr. Tillery was really that upset by Mr. Heimlich's tactics. After all, a lot of people in politics believe all publicity is good publicity.
And it has, no doubt, made a lot of Democrats wonder what good it is to have a majority on a nine-member city council if there is a better chance of bringing the Olympics to Cincinnati than having these five Democrats work together.
Hang on to those sample ballots the party faithful hand you at the polls Tuesday. They'll make good scratch paper for the kids.
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer. His column appears on Sundays.