The leading Republican candidate to replace scandal-scarred Rep. Bob Ney on the November ballot may be ineligible to run, party officials said Tuesday, complicating GOP efforts to assure a smooth transition for the fall campaign.

State Sen. Joy Padgett was a losing contender for lieutenant governor in Ohio's Republican primary earlier this year, and a state law bars politicians who lose one primary from entering another one during the same year.

One Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lawyers had concluded Padgett was likely covered by the law and thus would not be eligible to run.

The development came one day after Ney announced he would abandon his race for re-election, acting under pressure from party officials who feared the loss of his seat. The six-term lawmaker has come under scrutiny for his ties to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist at the center of a congressional corruption scandal.

Ney has not been charged, and denies all wrongdoing.

In stepping down, Ney threw his support to Padgett, who also said she had been encouraged by House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, to run.

Gov. Bob Taft is expected to set a date for a primary to fill the ballot vacancy.

The Democratic candidate is Zach Space, a lawyer from Dover in the district's most populous county.

Democrats had already begun to attack Padgett as a political creature of Ney and Taft. The governor has been unpopular since he pleaded no contest last August to failing to report golf outings and other gifts while in office.

"This would just be a continuation of everything that's going on in Washington," Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said Monday in an opening salvo. "Whether you're in Ohio or in Washington, you can put the Republicans in a paper bag and shake them up."

"I'm sure they're going to try to saddle me with that baggage. They're not running against Bob Ney. They're not running against Bob Taft. They're running against Joy Padgett. It will be a very clear choice between myself and Mr. Space," Padgett said in response to the criticism.

Padgett's elimination would likely clear the way for a more open primary battle. James Brodbelt Harris, who took 30 percent of the vote in the May primary against Ney, also is considering another run.

Ney has not been charged with any crimes, but court papers from Abramoff's guilty plea to fraud and corruption charges detailed lavish gifts and contributions that Abramoff says he gave to an unnamed House member in return for official acts, including support of Abramoff's American Indian tribe clients in Texas. Officials have confirmed that congressman is Ney.

Ohio law requires a primary if a candidate withdraws or dies more than 80 days before a general election. However, the county where Ney would file his official notice of withdrawal, Tuscarawas, had not received Ney's filing Monday.

If Ney were to wait until after the 80-day cutoff — which would be Aug. 21 — there is a four-day window in which county party officials could appoint a replacement, said James Lee, a spokesman for Blackwell. Ney spokeswoman Katie Harbath said the congressman was not available for comment.

In 2004, Padgett was criticized for a leaflet that characterized her opponent in the Senate race, Democrat Terry Anderson, as being soft on terrorism. Anderson, the former chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, was kidnapped by Iran-sponsored terrorists in 1985 and held hostage for seven years.

Padgett stood by the leaflet that showed Anderson with a photo of Hezbollah, the radical group that held him captive and is currently locked in a battle with Israel in Lebanon.

Padgett, 59, was director of the governor's office of Appalachia, appointed by Gov. George Voinovich in 1998 and reappointed by Gov. Bob Taft, both Republicans. She was a state representative from 1993-98.