BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio Democrats aren't exactly whistling their way into the new year full of cockeyed optimism, tap-dancing between the raindrops.
But at least they know one thing about 1998 as they enter a new round of statewide races:
It couldn't possibly be as bad as 1994.
Memories of that year still cause Ohio Democrats to wake up at night in a cold sweat. The party that had dominated Ohio politics for 20 years woke up the morning after that election with the realization that they had lost every one of the state constitutional offices, lost control of the Ohio congressional delegation, and handed over the Ohio House to the Republicans.
That year, the Democratic ticket in Ohio was led by one Rob Burch of Dover, Ohio.
Rob who?, you ask. Wasn't he one of the Reds' ''Nasty Boys'' in the 1990 World Championship season? No, that was Rob Dibble. Maybe he was the guy who used to sing with Colleen Sharp on the Ruth Lyons show? No, that was Rob Reider.
Actually, Rob Burch was the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor in 1994. His opponent, incumbent Republican George Voinovich, with his $8 million re-election bankroll, not only outspent the little-known Democratic state senator by 16-to-1, he gathered in 72 percent of the vote in the most lopsided governor's race of the century.
Mr. Burch was a gamer. He worked like a dog. But nobody was paying any attention, and he ended up with a scant 25 percent of the vote. The combination of a near-anonymous gubernatorial candidate and a then-unpopular president in Washington dragged the whole Democratic ticket into oblivion, from the Statehouse to the courthouse.
But this year, Ohio Democrats say, will be different.
''I can guarantee you that whatever happens in 1998,'' Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland said this week, ''the candidate at the top of our ticket will get more than 25 percent.''
That is probably true. Lee Fisher - the former Ohio attorney general who was bounced out of office in the Democratic debacle of 1994 - will be the gubernatorial candidate. He is expected to make the governor's contest a genuine race, even if his GOP opponent is Bob Taft, whose name is much better known.
But the problems for Democrats in Ohio this year are two-fold.
The first is a matter of history. In elections in the middle of presidential terms, the party that has the White House historically suffers losses.
Problem number two is that that pesky Voinovich fellow is once again going to be at the top of the ticket for the Republicans, no matter whether Mr. Taft or Ohio Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell ends up as the gubernatorial candidate.
Mr. Voinovich is planning to move on to the United States Senate this year. If Sen. John Glenn, were running for re-election, Mr. Voinovich might have his hands full, because Mr. Glenn still ranks as one of the most popular Ohio political figures of all time. But Mr. Glenn is retiring; and the Democrats will be running former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Mary Boyle.
Ms. Boyle is about as hard-nosed a campaigner as there is. Four years ago, she came close to handing Joel Hyatt his hat in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, and many Democrats believe she is just the kind of aggressive, street-smart candidate who could give the sometimes over-sensitive governor fits.
But a November Ohio Poll, sponsored by the Enquirer and the University of Cincinnati, showed Mr. Voinovich with a huge lead over Ms. Boyle - 63 percent to 30 percent for the Democrat.
No one on either side believes that, in the end, Mr. Voinovich will defeat Ms. Boyle 2-1. But Republicans believe that if he approaches 60 percent, he could once again drag the entire GOP ticket along with him.
If that happens, that bad dream may keep Democrats up at night once again.
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.