Among Republican insiders, there’s a growing consensus that Rob Portman—unassuming, polite, and experienced—should be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick.
The senator from Ohio doesn’t have the star power of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He served in the George W. Bush administration, which comes with certain baggage. And, despite ascending to the Senate in 2010 with a seemingly impressive win, Portman may not be much help to Romney in his pivotal home state in November.
Portman possesses a number of advantages, however, starting with this: He’s no Sarah Palin. A Romney-Portman ticket might be bland, but it would be seasoned, and it would solidify the ticket’s core message: We’re here to fix the economy.
The prospective running mates are similar in style and substance, suggesting that their relationship would gel. Both project a clean-cut image, are able fundraisers, and have spent their careers focused on economic issues. They’re also closely linked through a number of Republican establishment connections, including Stuart Stevens, Portman’s former media consultant, who is now Romney’s top strategist.
Romney and Portman met about eight years ago, when Portman was a House member and Romney was governor of Massachusetts, according to Portman spokesman Jeff Sadosky. Romney stumped for Portman during the last cycle at an event in Dayton, and Portman returned the favor by endorsing Romney in January.
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Portman has already leveraged his Ohio organization on Romney’s behalf, campaigning with Romney ahead of the state’s March 6 primary and sending e-mails touting Romney to the 1 million addresses on his electronic-mailing list. Portman even stood in for Romney at a Wilmington, Ohio, event. On Monday, at a lunch sponsored by Bloomberg News in New York City, he defended Romney’s career at Bain Capital in the face of an advertising onslaught from President Obama’s campaign. Portman said that Romney was engaging in “free enterprise” and echoed Romney’s talking point that he helped create 100,000 jobs—a figure that fact-checkers have called “shaky” and “untenable.”
Like Romney’s presidential campaign, Portman’s Senate run was marked by discipline, attention to metrics, and a focus on jobs and the economy; Portman’s experience pitching conservative economic solutions would align well with Romney’s economic message.
Unlike Romney, who had to ratchet up his red-meat quotient to win over conservatives and lock up the GOP nomination, Portman was able to avoid hot-button issues.
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“Their message was jobs and the economy, from the beginning,” said Kevin Holtsberry, Portman’s 2010 new-media director.
Campaign associates acknowledged that Portman didn’t exactly thrill the conservative base, but his strong economic message didn’t alienate anyone either, they say.
Portman was unknown outside of his old 2nd District base. He visited all 88 counties, toured hundreds of factories, reached out to both establishment Republicans and tea party groups, and took his message online.
“Rob is very much a metrics-driven person,” said Peter Pasi of Emotive, a digital-strategy firm that advised Portman’s campaign. Portman and his team “measured everything” from e-mail opt-ins to Twitter chatter, Pasi said. The campaign embraced innovative strategies, such as Google’s TruView ads, YouTube, and persuasive, targeted online ads, Pasi said— “things that people really didn’t do back in 2010.”
Still, Portman’s 18-point victory came in a wave election year, against an underfunded and disorganized opponent.
“The tide was so much in a Republican direction” in 2010, said Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck. “They swept all of the statewide offices here in Ohio.”
Portman won over some swing voters, but he also had the advantage of an energized GOP base. An Ohio Democratic Party official pointed to a contentious Democratic primary and low Democratic turnout as additional factors working in Portman’s favor.
Portman’s presumed ability to swing Ohio Romney’s way is considered a potential key asset to the presidential ticket, but recent polls suggest that he won’t make much of a difference on Nov. 6.
Portman isn’t the fiery, attack-dog veep contender that many conservatives would like to see, and he would cement Romney’s ties to the Republican establishment rather than balancing the ticket with an outsider’s perspective.
“He’s very much like Romney. So the question is: What does he add?” Beck said.
For better or for worse, Portman brings to the mix experience from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Portman is the ultimate insider—a lawmaker who also served as U.S. trade representative and as Office of Management and Budget director. His first job out of college was working for George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign.
Democrats tried capitalizing on Portman’s ties to George W. Bush in his Senate bid and can be expected to continue that line of attack should he get the vice presidential nod.
“Senator Portman was the architect of the failed Bush economic policies that gave tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires and outsourced jobs from Ohio and several other states,” said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz.
Regardless, Romney hasn’t shied away from adding veterans of the Bush years to his team. Portman’s Bush ties, if anything, could provide him with advocates within Romney’s inner circle.
The idea that a candidate needs to add balance, or buzz, to a ticket is overrated, said Al From, who founded the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, now defunct, and played a key role in Bill Clinton’s choice of then-Sen. Al Gore as a running mate in 1992, which put two young, moderate Southerners on the same ticket.
“Nobody really brings large blocs of voters with them,” From said. “In the end, people still vote for the presidential candidate, and the best a vice presidential candidate can do is not detract from that but reinforce that message.”
It will be months before the vice presidential selection process is finalized. Portman demurred on Monday when asked if he harbored such ambitions.
“I think I’m better suited to stay where I am in the Senate,” he said at the Bloomberg luncheon. “The folks in Ohio expect me to stick around and do my job.”
This article appears in the May 15, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.