An impressive bronze statue sits in a corner of the statehouse lawn here. A passerby might assume it commemorates some long-gone historical figure. "James A. Rhodes. He served as governor for 16 years -- longer than any other state governor in the history of the union," says the inscription in the red granite base.

But Rhodes, who first sought the governorship in 1950, isn't gone, or forgotten. Crusty as ever, he is running for governor a seventh time, and is favored -- much to the chagrin of some party leaders -- to beat two younger rivals in the May 6 Republican primary.

The 76-year-old Rhodes is the oldest of three former GOP governors -- called "retreads" by some -- attempting political comebacks in key states this year as Republicans, now outnumbered 34 to 16 in governorships, hope to make major inroads in statehouses and expand their base among younger voters.

Former Texas governor Bill Clements, 68, leads two younger rivals in polls and former Tennessee governor Winfield Dunn, 58, faces only token primary opposition. A fourth "retread," former U.S. senator Henry L. Bellmon, 64, is running for governor of Oklahoma.

Rhodes' big opening came one year ago this week when the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression hit Ohio. Gov. Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat, declared a bank holiday, closing 71 savings and loan institutions -- a move Rhodes promptly declared unnecessary.

Rhodes still complains about the way Celeste handled the crisis. "He did the work of two men -- Laurel and Hardy," he told a GOP audience in the tiny Ohio River town of Pomeroy last week. "He panicked. He became frustrated . . . . He was like Don Quixote running around in four different directions."

The good news for Celeste, 48, is that the savings and loan crisis has not become the political liability some observers thought it would. "We're going to try to make it a positive," said Democratic state chairman James Ruvolo. "It's an example of decisive leadership during a time of crisis. Every depositor got his money back."

The bad news for Celeste is that he has more than enough other problems. Elected in 1982 by a record margin, Celeste, a former Rhodes scholar and Peace Corps director, pushed through a major tax increase during his first months in office that still angers many voters. More recently, his administration has been ensnarled in an almost constant round of scandals, involving charges of political kickbacks, shakedowns of state workers and official ineptitute.

Five top appointees have resigned under fire; nine state and federal grand juries are investigating allegations; and Marvin L. Warner, one of Celeste's big contributors, is awaiting trial on charges stemming from his role as owner of Home State Savings Bank, whose collapse triggered the 1985 banking crisis.

Almost every month brings Celeste new problems. The firm that produced television commercials for his 1982 campaign, for example, received a $8.3 million contract to promote tourism in the state. Celeste's Youth Services Department has come under fire for hiring two convicted drug felons, writing checks to nonexistent companies and falsifying state records.

His Department of Mental Retardation has been more controversial. According to reports in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and The Cincinnati Enquirer, patients in private mental health facilities with state contracts have been severely beaten, sexually abused and poorly fed. One patient died of malnutrition. The administrator of one company with 14 group homes allegedly used the nonprofit status of her agency to buy two Jaguars, tax-free.

State employes have long been a major source of campaign contributions for Democratic and Republican governors here, but the Celeste administration is being charged with taking the practice to new heights. Last week, The Columbus Dispatch reported that 12 top National Guard officials gave $30,780 to Democratic committees since early 1982. Of the 11 who contributed more than $500, nine received promotions, the newspaper said. The other two retired.

Celeste dismissed the allegations as "political potboiling" instigated by Rhodes allies. "Republicans have been running a negative campaign for the last six months, a campaign by legislative committees, accusation and grand jury, because they don't have an economic or educational issue to talk about," he said in an interview. "Sure we've had some bumps, but I think people are saying that things are better under Dick Celeste than they were under the Republicans."

Rhodes hasn't survived a half-century in politics by not capitalizing on such situations. He has formed a "So Long Celeste Club." Membership cards invite newcomers who have been "fired," "lied to," "cheated," "shaken down" or "overtaxed" by Celeste.

Many Republicans, however, aren't excited about the prospect of Rhodes as a standard-bearer. "I think he should have stayed retired. I think Dick Celeste can beat Rhodes," said state Sen. Richard F. Finnan, a Cincinnati Republican. "We Republicans had a tremendous outpouring of 18- to 30-year-old voters in 1984. I don't know if Jim Rhodes can marshal that base we developed."

But age isn't Rhodes' only problem. He has weathered more than his share of controversy over the years, including allegations of dipping into campaign funds for personal use, cozy relationships with businessmen who profited from state activities and his role in the fatal shooting of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970.

Massive budget deficits, high unemployment and scores of school closings plagued his final years in office. His rivals assert that Rhodes also was touched by the Home State banking situation. State examiners told Rhodes of Home State's problems before he left office and he did little to correct them, they say. Rhodes also appointed Home State owner Warner to the Miami University Board of Trustees and gave him a governor's award in 1969.

"Jim Rhodes lives in a glass house. He has a record that doesn't bear scrutiny," said Democratic chairman Ruvolo.

The conventional wisdom is that Rhodes could be beaten one-on-one in the GOP primary, but his two opponents are now splitting the anti-Rhodes vote. Neither seems quite sure how to handle him.

State Senate President Paul E. Gillmor has taken the high road. He tells audiences that Rhodes was first elected to public office (the Columbus school board) "some 50 years ago . . . I know him. I like him. But in 1986 this state and this party need a new beginning."

State Sen. Paul E. Pfeifer takes a more direct approach. He has run television ads focusing on the age issue, called a news conference in front of Rhodes' statue here and compared the former governor to deposed Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. "Just like Marcos, Rhodes has complete control of the palace guard, but nobody else," he said.

"Rhodes is THE issue," said Pfeifer, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982. "The majority of Republicans aren't mad at Jim Rhodes. The real issue in their minds is whether this guy can win one more time. Our polls show 39 percent of Republicans don't think he can beat Celeste."

Celeste strategists could hardly be more pleased. "The Republicans know Jim Rhodes can be beaten. He's probably their weakest candidate," said Jerry Austin, who managed Celeste's 1982 campaign.