Surrounded by cameras, Republican flacks, and many notepads, the senator flashed a thin smile and then ducked into the “Constitution Room,” where he took a seat at a long table. A pair of New Hampshire GOP officials sat beside him. What followed for the next 40 minutes was a case study in how a prominent politician can deftly play the vice-presidential game. By holding an open “press availability,” Portman signaled that he is not shy about being considered a short-lister, and his winking humor with national political reporters at the beginning of the presser illuminated his comfort with the role he’s playing. “Some big hitters here — wow,” he said as he glanced around the room. He settled his gaze on Time’s Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann, the bestselling authors of Game Change. “What are you guys doing in New Hampshire?” he asked. Halperin’s reply was swift: “Same thing you are: trying to get a meeting with Governor Romney.” The hovering politicos and reporters, including Portman, exploded with laughter.
But after that burst of good humor, Portman made it clear he was not flaunting his newfound high-profile status. His expression and tone were serious, in keeping with his usual low-key mien. On answer after answer, he kept his voice low, his eyes on the audience, and his cards close to his vest.” Of course, he seems open to being tapped, if not eager for it. But according to the unwritten rules of politics, you can only allude to such ambitions, and his exchange with Halperin was the lone moment of levity. “That’s really up to the campaign to address,” he said a few minutes later, when a reporter asked whether Romney’s team was vetting him. “I’m here mostly on a college tour with my daughter, but at the same time to help out New Hampshire Republicans and the Romney campaign.” And so it went. When asked directly whether he’d meet Romney this weekend, Portman said he had “no plans” to do so — but he didn’t elaborate on whether they had a phone conversation, or whether Romney aides have been in touch with him. He did note that he’d have lunch with former president (and Reagan veep) George H. W. Bush on Sunday in Maine; the only other nugget was his supportive, if mischievous, recommendation of Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as Romney’s running mate.
Still, the non-denial aspect of these responses stirred knowing glances among reporters. Maybe this was a trial VP run, or maybe this was simply a press conference by a mostly unknown politician who is trying to build a national following. Regardless, the room was thick with anticipation. Portman played down his role as a top Romney backer, even as the questions about his active campaign role kept coming. “[Romney] has plenty of surrogates out there for him right now,” he said, a tad exasperated. “Some of them may be on the list, while others may not be, but I don’t think there is a shortage of interest in getting out and talking on his behalf.”