So does all of this — the New Hampshire visit, the presser, the Obama potshots, the reticent persona — add up to Portman’s landing on the ticket by late summer? Perhaps, but for now no one at Romney’s Boston headquarters is saying much about the final stages of Romney’s deliberations. It’s clear that a decision is taking shape, and Portman is surely somewhere in that mix, but there are other contenders, such as Tim Pawlenty and Paul Ryan, whose names are mentioned alongside Portman. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a senior Romney adviser, tells me that Portman is a favorite of many within Romney’s inner circle, because of his political diligence, his fundraising prowess, and his policy acumen. “He knows how to work the details, and he probably understands the budget better than anyone running for president or vice president,” Sununu says. “He’s just a solid guy.” But Sununu and other Romney aides acknowledge that Portman’s Bush tenure could be fodder for liberals who would like to run, once again, against George W. Bush. “It could be used as a negative by the Obama campaign,” he says. “If he is the choice, there would have to be a strategy on that side of the ledger.” Vin Weber, another top Romney adviser, agrees on Portman’s strengths and predicts that if Portman is the pick, his “expertise” on fiscal issues would be the main theme. “Portman operated within the parameters that were handed to him,” Weber says. “The people who care about [the Bush deficits] are in the Republican base, but I don’t think they’d hold Portman’s work against him.”
Beyond his sterling résumé, Portman has been a player behind the scenes since the heated Republican primary. On Super Tuesday, when Romney needed to win Ohio, Portman deployed his network of volunteers and advisers around the state, focusing on turnout in the Cincinnati suburbs, which Portman once represented in the House. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney aide, told me after Romney won Ohio by a narrow margin that Portman put the campaign over the top: Thanks to Portman’s push, Romney came to Ohio “a week before the election, down eleven points, and quickly caught up.” And a Politico analysis of the exit polls shows that a quarter of Ohio Republicans made their decision during the final days of the campaign, when Portman and Romney were travel companions. In Cincinnati and its suburbs, for example, Romney won by 6,000 votes — more than half of his total statewide margin. “I remember sitting in the war room that night, watching the returns,” says Tom Rath, a Romney adviser. “Everyone was eyeing Cincinnati — Rob Portman country. He delivered, and in many ways, it ended the race. People haven’t forgotten what he was able to do in Hamilton County when Romney needed to perform.”
Since Romney clinched the nomination, Portman hasn’t been as prominent a surrogate as Pawlenty and Ryan, who often appear on television on Romney’s behalf. But he has been a fundraising machine, raising millions for Romney from southwestern Ohio. Last month, he hosted a series of events with big-dollar donors, including one reception that netted more than $3 million for Romney and other Republicans. Portman didn’t discuss his money ties Saturday, but he did casually mention that this veep dance isn’t his first dabble in high-stakes presidential politics. Ever since Bob Dole was the GOP nominee in 1996, Portman has been an informal adviser to Republican nominees, mostly as a master of debate prep. During 2000 practice sessions, Portman played the role of Al Gore opposite George W. Bush; four years later, he played the role of John Kerry as Bush prepared for those debates. During the McCain–Obama race, Portman flew to Arizona and played the role of Obama against McCain. “I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of old friends from over the years,” Portman told reporters. This presidential campaign, he said, is the seventh as an adviser, going back to the Reagan-Bush campaigns of the 1980s. After Bush 41 was elected, Portman worked as a political aide at the White House, a job that helped him win a congressional seat via a special election in 1993, following the incumbent’s retirement.
Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 campaign, tells me that Portman has long been an admired figure within Republican politics, but this is the first cycle where he is seriously receiving vice-presidential consideration. “He wasn’t on our list,” Schmidt says. “His main job was to prep McCain, and he wasn’t a major national surrogate. But now that he’s a senator, he has taken a step forward in his political career.” To Schmidt, Portman “passes the crucial test of preparedness.” If the Ohioan is selected, there will be “widespread consensus among Republicans, the media, and Democrats that he’s qualified from Day One to be commander-in-chief,” Schmidt says. And whether or not he ends up on the ticket, Portman’s visit to this sleepy capital underscores his rising profile. He’s serious enough to draw a crowd of reporters, as well as an excited group of donors to a closed-door fundraiser. But because Portman didn’t travel to Lake Winnipesaukee to meet with Romney, he didn’t make news — he merely stirred buzz. “I went canoeing today on the Connecticut River,” he reminded us. And for today, at least, that was enough for him. In the volatile and tense world of veep vetting, no news is usually good news.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.