Hempstead, N.Y. — “Was that twelve years ago? I guess it was,” says Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. It’s midnight on Tuesday and we’re standing in the cold at Hofstra University. Portman is reminiscing about his part-time career as a debate consultant. Back in October 2000, he advised George W. Bush before his town-hall debate with Vice President Al Gore, and he accurately predicted that Gore would be aggressive. Bush advisers were impressed, and ever since, Portman has occupied a rarefied space in Republican politics: the prep schoolmaster.
Portman is the guy you call if you’re on the national ticket and you need some behind-the-scenes assistance. He’ll mimic your opponent, push your buttons, and shake up your practice routine. He helped Bush and Dick Cheney in both of their campaigns, and four years ago, he advised John McCain before his debates. This fall, he’s playing President Obama for Mitt Romney. Before the Long Island town hall, he and Romney sat in a Marriott ballroom near Boston, walking through various scenarios. “I enjoy it,” Portman says. “It forces me to really understand where the other side is coming from.”
“Now, it can be difficult when you’re on the campaign trail,” Portman chuckles. “One day, I’m giving a rally speech in Columbus, Ohio, and the next day, I’m flying somewhere to play President Obama. It’s a split-personality issue.” But he keeps doing it, cycle after cycle, because it enables him to help his party, and work with the nominee.
Before this latest debate, Portman gave Romney the same advice he gave Bush, according to sources close to the sessions. He predicted that Obama would be alert and animated, and eager to erase the memories from his flat-footed turn at the first debate.
“President Obama was aggressive, and he came out swinging,” Portman says. “That’s what we expected, that’s what we planned for. It probably helped him with his base because they were dispirited after the last debate. But for those undecided voters in Ohio and around the country, I don’t think that’s what they were looking for.”
Romney’s plan was to push back against Obama’s expected energy with details about his record, from the president’s regulatory policy to unemployment. Romney wouldn’t just make his case, he’d ask Obama direct questions, “on behalf of the undecided voter,” Portman says.
Earlier in the night, Portman made an appearance in the spin room. He mingled with reporters, and politely quarreled with journalists who said Romney had an off night. Romney was sharp at Hofstra, Portman argued, and his performance built upon the momentum from his tour de force in Denver.
Portman also cautioned reporters to not consider the second debate to be some kind of earth-moving event. “I don’t think it’ll be as consequential,” Portman said. “The first debates are always more consequential. More people watch the first debate.” Early voting, he added, has already started in Ohio, so many people “voted in the interim period” between the first and second debate.
In a few days, Portman will join Romney in Florida as he prepares for the third and final debate, which will focus on foreign policy. He’ll continue to lead the mock debates, working with Romney adviser Peter Flaherty, who will play the moderator. He expects Obama to repeat his Hofstra strategy — he thinks the president will stay on the attack, that he’ll be flippant about Romney’s answers. But he’s not sure how it’ll play.
“I was watching the dials, and the more aggressive he got, the dials didn’t respond favorably,” Portman says. “He was more aggressive because his base demanded it,” but he didn’t close the sale.
From Gore to John Kerry in 2004, Portman has seen Democratic presidential nominees go from cold to hot in debates. Obama is following suit, Portman says, but if history is any indication, voters want forceful and steady. As Portman sees it, that’s exactly what Romney was on Tuesday.