Two guys named Paul are running for governor of Ohio against a statue. And the statue is winning.

One Paul heaps ridicule and scorn on the bronze statue, which stands majestically on the statehouse lawn in Columbus. He says the character it depicts reminds him alternately of Ferdinand Marcos, Henny Youngman or Uncle Remus.

The other Paul made the statue seem to talk in his television commercials. "When your statue is in the Hall of Fame you don't play football again and when your statue is on the statehouse lawn you shouldn't be governor again," declares the TV ad.

The statue doesn't seem to notice the abuse. It memorializes "Mr. Ohio," James A. Rhodes, governor of the Buckeye State for a record 16 -- of the last 23 -- years.

"I draw the pigeons," Rhodes says of himself and the statue. "We have no objections."

At age 76, he is rolling along the comeback trail toward Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary like a Mack truck steaming down U.S. 23, which passes through this small central Ohio city. His two opponents weren't even born when he won his first political office in 1937, and Rhodes all but ignores them as he wheels on.

Seeking a fifth term as governor, something no one else has done, Rhodes is THE issue in Tuesday's primary. He has dominated the governorship and the state Republican Party for a quarter-century.

This is his great strength and weakness. "His time has come and gone," said state Sen. Paul Pfeifer, his most outspoken opponent. "Being governor 16 years can dull your senses."

"It is time for a change and a new beginning for the Republican Party," said state Senate President Paul Gillmor, who has run the statue commercials. "If he wins, it means we will have fielded our weakest candidate."

That kind of talk appears to have backfired on Gillmor and Pfeifer among some old party regulars in places such as Marion, home of Warren G. Harding, the nation's 29th president -- a Republican, of course.

"Rhodes is an institution in Ohio. He was a good governor for 16 years. You don't go badmouthing someone like that," said Robin Turner, a former state senator, at a Rhodes luncheon at the Harding Inn that attracted most of the county party leadership. "That doesn't sell in a room like this."

Rhodes is the nimblest of politicians, a master of the art of blue smoke and mirrors. The secret of politics, he told one group of reporters, "is not what you do. It's what people believe you are doing."

He dealt with the age issue by declaring himself "healthier than Reagan" and picking as his running mate Robert Taft II, a popular Cincinnatian who belongs to Ohio's best-known political family and is only 44.

After avoiding suspicious reporters for months, Rhodes invited them to join a series of bus trips around the state, beginning at 4:45 a.m. each day. "Where you been? I was here on time," he told straggling journalists.

"I don't look my age," he said in an interview. "I've never had cancer. I've never been shot at."

He is an earthy man with a disjointed, homespun speaking style. At the height of his popularity as a strong, business-oriented governor, he was called on to give pointers to new Republican governors in 1966. Some expected an inspirational speech. Instead, Rhodes delivered the same advice he gave to each of his four cabinets:

"You don't steal. You don't fudge on your expense accounts. You don't drink on the job. And you don't mess with the help."

Rhodes has always been an unabashed promoter, a designer of grand schemes. When a Japanese delegation visited Columbus in the late 1970s, he took them to lunch at Wendy's, a hamburger chain he invested in heavily. "Eat. Eat," he told them.

This year there was nothing to compare with Rhodes' plan to build a bridge across Lake Erie or his campaigning to get Ohioans to drink more tomato juice. But he drew chuckles by proposing to give dropouts $1,500 each to stay in school and suggesting that Ohio farmers, to deal with their financial problems, grow potatoes to be used for french fries -- even though there is a national surplus of potatoes.

Rhodes made a few other missteps on the campaign trial. During an April 3 speech at the University of Steubenville, he told a student, "You ought to feel justly proud of Youngstown University."

Pfeifer, who offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could get Rhodes to appear with him, said such incidents indicated that age had caught up with Rhodes.

But Gerald Austin, campaign director for Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste, said of Rhodes, "The guy is not senile. He's been saying the same things for 50 years. His plan for the '80s is for everyone to grow potatoes."

Few governors have survived the problems that Celeste, defeated by Rhodes in 1978, has endured. Celeste pushed through a 90 percent increase in personal income taxes his first year in office -- in part to cope with a huge defict left by Rhodes. And last year he presided over the state's worst banking crisis since the Great Depression when the collapse of Home State Savings, owned by his biggest fund-raisers, led to the closing of 71 savings and loan institutions.

More recently, his administration has been rocked by a round of scandals involving charges of political kickbacks, shakedowns of state workers and official ineptitude.

Five top appointees have resigned under fire, nine state and federal grand juries are investigating allegations and Home State owner Marvin L. Warner is awaiting trial.

Rhodes has been hammering at the scandals for months. "I pray every night that the good Lord gives me the strength to break downs the walls of corruption in the statehouse," he told a rally last week.

But many Republicans worry that Rhodes is ill-equipped to make the case against Celeste, 48. Rhodes' past is less than pure, and the Home State crisis began developing during his administration. He also appointed Warner a trustee at a state university.

"Celeste can throw so many of these things right back in Rhodes' face," said state Rep. Bob Netzley, a Republican. "Our the party's number one priority is to beat Celeste, and Rhodes will have great difficulty beating him."