Sitting atop every insider’s shortlist is one name: Senator Rob Portman.
Of course, this is hardly news. For the past year, Portman has been mentioned as a leading vice-presidential contender. But the Ohio Republican’s smooth, steady run as a veep favorite isn’t happenstance, or merely a by-product of his swing-state roots. Portman has earned the interest.
Ever since Portman endorsed Mitt Romney in January, ahead of Ohio’s March primary, the freshman senator has been a quiet but key Romney surrogate. On the trail, he’s a frequent presence at Romney’s side, and he has traveled to North Carolina and Pennsylvania to stump.
But it’s behind the scenes, far from the klieg lights, where Portman has made an indelible mark.
On the ground in Ohio, he has freely shared his sprawling volunteer network with the Romney campaign. “He’s been a real force,” says Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou.
Portman backers played an important part in Romney’s narrow Ohio victory, especially in the voter-rich suburbs of southwestern Ohio. For much of the winter, Portman also informally advised Russ Schiefer and Stuart Stevens, two of his former aides who are now top Romney strategists.
After the Ohio primary, during the tail end of the Romney-Santorum spar, Portman took on an influential, if private, role in preparing Romney’s general-election operation in the Buckeye State. He consulted on hires and connected Romney aides with Ohio-based GOP operatives.
Perhaps most notably, Portman has impressed Romney headquarters with his fundraising prowess. Instead of seeking appearances on cable talk shows, one Romney aide says, Portman focuses on working his donors. Among Romney advisers, Portman’s fundraising savvy is as prized as his policy smarts.
On Thursday, Romney will be in Columbus, Ohio, for a fundraiser at the home of Les Wexner, the founder of Limited Brands. Wexner, a longtime Portman supporter, has donated to Republican causes for years, but Portman made sure to reintroduce him to Romney’s team.
A week ago, Portman brought Romney to Cincinnati, a few miles from his former congressional district. Almost all of his big-dollar donors were present, including members of the Lindner family, which operates American Financial Group, a prominent Ohio corporation. Portman warmly introduced Romney to his base, and his base donated $3 million to the cause.
“He has been the ultimate team player,” says Vin Weber, a Romney adviser who has known Portman for years. “He has managed to do a good job in a number of positions.” Romney appreciates the effort, Weber says, so it’s no surprise that the Portman veep chatter continues.
According to Portman’s associates, surrogate work comes easily to the mild-mannered Ohioan. Beyond his close-knit relationships with Stevens and Schiefer, he has been a high-profile booster in previous presidential cycles, most recently for John McCain’s campaign four years ago.
“He has always been the kind of guy who can go into small towns and be effective,” says former congressman Bill Gradison, Portman’s predecessor and mentor. “He has never been a tub-thumper or a shouter, but he’s one of the best out there, in terms of talking with swing voters.”