Concord, N.H. — It took Rob Portman five years to graduate from Dartmouth College. He switched majors twice, and he was rarely a habitué of Baker Memorial Library. Instead, Portman was a devoted outdoorsman. He spent hours on the slopes and even more on the water. For the skinny, long-haired teenager from Cincinnati, the Connecticut River’s strong currents were a refreshing diversion from Ivy League academia. The river’s rapids were also a training course. By 1977, Portman’s third year, he and some friends won a grant to kayak the entire length of the Rio Grande, from its source in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. They packed their bags, left Hanover, N.H., and headed west. For the next six months, Portman paddled, huddled with locals in off-the-grid Texas towns, and generally lived the life of a frugal nomad. He also perfected his Spanish, which he still speaks fluently. Portman eventually graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, but as he told me earlier this year, his best times were on a boat.
Portman, now a freshman Republican senator from Ohio, returned to the Connecticut River this past Saturday. He spent much of the day in a canoe, gliding past his old haunts. The official reason for the summer visit to his alma mater was familial: His 17-year-old daughter, Sally, was taking a tour of the school, one of four colleges she visited over the weekend. Yet this afternoon on the river was more than a jaunt down memory lane. It was, as ever, a fresh-air escape, this time from another sort of stuffiness: the vice-presidential sweepstakes. Portman has been at the top of nearly of every Beltway insider’s shortlist for months. As a respected and wonky lawmaker from a swing state, he is seen in many quarters as the default favorite for the pick, even though there is scant evidence about his actual standing or the selection process. His Granite State trip, family-related as it may be, only increased the chatter because Mitt Romney was on vacation a few miles to the east, in Wolfeboro, N.H.
The veep contender’s relative proximity to Romney, and his fundraising reception later Saturday for the state GOP, set the political world abuzz. There was widespread discussion for much of the day, especially on Twitter, about a potential Romney-Portman meeting. The news photographers staked out in boats near Romney’s lakefront home pulled out extra-long lenses, just in case Portman appeared on Romney’s deck. Romney’s advisers, for their part, were mum about the former governor’s guests (if any), which only stoked the speculation. Portman’s advisers kept the senator’s whereabouts private. By dusk, when Portman arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in Concord, it was anybody’s guess. Wire reporters told writers in the lobby that they hadn’t heard anything from the photographers on the lake. But Romney’s property is shrouded by leafy trees, so the lack of a Portman sighting didn’t solve the mystery. As Portman strolled into the hotel, a pack of recorder-toting bloggers peppered the senator with questions about where exactly he had been.