Brent Larkin, the semi-retired Plain Dealer editorial page chief who now writes a weekly column for the paper, may have caught a lot of his readers by surprise by linking the “N-word” to Gov. Kasich in his most recent Sunday piece.

No, it’s not what you think.

The “N” refers to “nauseating”, which is how Larkin bluntly described the governor’s evasive position on the gun issue in Ohio: Kasich’s feathery response showed something less than his boasted derring-do leadership to move the state forward.

In case you must be reminded, here is the governor’s empty rationale that Larkin recorded:

“As we move forward, whatever we do , we don’t want to erode the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Larkin then went on to recite the ugly statististics of the slaughter of young people in 2011 by killers wielding firearms.

Good for Brent! More so, because assigning “nauseous” to a Kasich dance step was a clear departure from how the paper has been glowing about the Guv’s bold initiatives for his Brave New Ohio ever since the Plain Dealer endorsed him for governor.

As a longtime fixture as a political writer in Cleveland, Larkin is accorded a certain degree of attention for his views. Although Kasich claims he doesn’t stoop to read newspapers, I can fairly guess that “nauseating” didn’t escape his notice. That’s why you surround yourself with aides.

Meantime, as critical issues rise, the paper has been seeing some of its staff disappear as it confronts worrisome cutbacks, the latest projected to slice 58 more from the newsroom. Its once-respected Columbus bureau has lost two of its three reporters. Reggie Fields has gone off to firmer ground with the Ohio State Medical Association, and Joe Guillen, to the Detroit Free Press. The paper’s book editor, Karen Long, is leaving to become the manager the Anisfield Books Awards program sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation. And Debbie VanTassel, a feature editor, is heading for the Arizona Republic with her husband Stu Warner, the paper’s former writing coach.

There was a day a couple decades ago when so many Beacon Journal reporters and editors (including me) were heading north to the PD that one could easily describe the BJ as the the PD’s farm club.

No such situation exists today, not ony for the PD but also the other dailies who are so stressed out by the electronic forces arrayed against them that they have hugged the middle of the road to avoid offending what’s left of their readers. Two most recent examples: The right-to-work issue in Michigan and demands for gun control were scarcely addressed by Ohio’s editorial writers. The only certainty was the daily compliments paid to the governor in hopes that the wish for a stronger economy would guarantee success.

By choice, the trend has gone from hard (and controversial) positions to feel-good stories selected to prove that the hometown paper really – really! – cared about the hometown readers.

Was I the only PD reader who was startled to see Kasich and the N-word in the same breath, courtesy of a widely read columnist for a paper with an ambivalent approach on some big issues? Let’s hope not.