WHEN A MEMBER of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board exudes hope from Rep. Steve LaTourette’s decision not to seek reelection, you can figure the Republican hard right is still very much in the driver’s seat these days. Specifically, the writer, Kimberley A. Strassel, concluded:

“If Republicans play their cards right, this might be a chance to fill the seat with a more reform-minded member.” She also wondered whether the the nine-term Republican might not be worried that his relelection campaign might “prove difficult.”

Make me laugh. Obviously the WSJ Ivory Tower is tightly sealed from reality.

LaTourette, whose 14th District stretches from Conneaut to Cuyahoga Falls and pokes into seven northeast counties, is hardly a leftwing zealot. But he has defied his party on several important issues to win the title of centrist. Among them: the right-wing blood oath against raising taxes.

Apparently neither side had expected him to vanish into private life. His Democratic opponent is Dale Blanchard, a perennial candidate who has been trying to unseat LaTourette for over a decade. That’s a problem for the Democrats; they simply don’t have a way to win the vacated seat in November with a credible candidate now that Blanchard has won the Democratic primary. ”We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this,” says a plainly frustrated Nick Martin, the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s executive director who, like a lot of other people, is still trying to figure out the party’s next move.

Next comes the Republicans’ mess. Who will represent the party on the November ballot? Look at it this way: LaTourette’s district includes those seven counties. Will it be a free- for- all, or will the GOP be able to bring together the seven Republican chairmen for a consensus candidate? They have until Aug. 13 to choose a candidate.

Egos are never that pliable in politics. Write-ins by late-comers? Maybe. Dennis Kucinich, who doesn’t live in the district but hardly considers himself in political retirement? And maybe not. The great “mentioning game” is under way to comfort the pols in the midst of summer heat and drought.

Party leaders aren’t saying much in the wake of LaTourette’s decision. Republican Chairman Dale Fellows, of Lake County, whose entire county is in the district, did not return phone calls. Nor did some others. The normally voluble Summit County GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff checked out with a “no comment” when I called him. What is politics without its share of intrigue?

Jerry Austin, veteran manager of Democratic campaigns, sums it up this way: “It will be fun to watch.” He has some remorse that the GOP swing to the right has influenced LaTourette to retire rather than put up with the deadlocked ways of Congress. “Too bad,’ says Austin. “LaTourette was rational.”

LaTourette’s frustration was stressed in his words to Politico: “The current climate has increased the toll that it takes on a person.” Another departing Republican “moderate”, Sen.Olympia Snowe, can sympathize.