The Corner

The one and only.

Portman’s Biking Pal Is Romney’s Chief Strategist


Inside the Beltway, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is considered a leading vice-presidential contender for many reasons: He’s a respected legislator, he’s from a swing state, and as a former budget director, he’s fluent in fiscal and economic matters.

But one other factor may give Portman an edge within Romney’s tight-knit inner circle. He’s a close and longtime friend of Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist.

In a hush-hush process where relationships are critical, Portman’s Stevens connection is at the very least a clue.

Beth Myers, a top Romney aide, may be running the search, and ultimately the choice will be Romney’s, but Stevens will naturally feature in those senior-level discussions about the candidates, and the final decision. One source close to the Romney campaign thinks Stevens’s affinity for Portman may guarantee him a position on the short list.

Around Washington, there are many stories about how Portman and Stevens, both fitness enthusiasts, have been allies and “buddies,” as one Republican operative puts it.

Here are four quick examples:

  • When Stevens visits Cincinnati, he doesn’t book a hotel room — he stays in Portman’s home in suburban Terrace Park. He crashes, as college kids say, in the basement, where there’s a spare bed.
  • When Portman decided to run for Senate in 2010, he tapped Stevens to be his chief strategist and consultant. Stevens produced Portman’s television advertisements, crafted his message, and spent weeks in Ohio at his friend’s side.
  • Ever since Portman began his Senate term (and long before he endorsed Romney), he and Stevens have had multiple private phone conversations. They keep in close touch, talking politics and sports.
  • Two years ago, Stevens and Portman looked forward to biking together at Pelotonia, a 100-mile cycling race to raise money for cancer research. They trained hard, but weeks before the event, Portman broke his collarbone while riding with his son, Will. Stevens, however, didn’t drop out. He carried on, as part of “Team Portman,” to the senator’s delight.

#more#It’s also not a secret that Stevens openly admires Portman’s debating skills, particularly in a vice-presidential setting. #more#Stevens, a former Bush adviser, worked closely with Portman during both of President Bush’s campaigns. During debate prep, Portman played the role of Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004.

In The Big Enchilada, Stevens’s book about Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, the strategist describes his admiration for Portman’s ability: “Rob Portman had Lieberman down perfectly, capturing his funny but biting style.”

In her memoir, Now It’s My Turn, Cheney’s daughter Mary wrote about that prep session — and Stevens’s respect for Portman’s judgment.  It was Portman who predicted that Lieberman may ask Cheney to sign a pledge, on live television, not to run negative campaign ads. “Portman’s point,” she writes, “one strongly supported by political strategist Stuart Stevens . . . playing the moderator, was that just because something the rules say isn’t allowed doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

Before Bush’s final general-election debate against Al Gore that year, Portman was asked to play the role of the incumbent vice president. He sparred with Bush during what Stevens calls a “typically informal affair at the governor’s mansion,” and predicted, once again, that the other candidate would break the rules, or at least try to intimidate Bush. Portman impressed the Texan with his ease at imitating Gore, Stevens writes, from his awkward mannerisms to his political rhetoric. And, “just as Portman predicted, Gore stalked Bush, moving right over to him like a drunken frat boy trying to pick a fight in a bar.”

Of course, the actual political weight of the Portman-Stevens friendship is unknowable. Stevens keeps a low public profile, and was unavailable for comment.

Still, in a parlor game that usually features much chatter and few facts, the Portman-Stevens connection is something to keep an eye on. They have been working, biking, and huddling together for over a decade. No other vice-presidential contender has such strong ties.