Sitting atop every insider’s shortlist is one name: Senator Rob Portman.
Of course, this is hardly news. For the past year, Portman has been mentioned as a leading vice-presidential contender. But the Ohio Republican’s smooth, steady run as a veep favorite isn’t happenstance, or merely a by-product of his swing-state roots. Portman has earned the interest.
Ever since Portman endorsed Mitt Romney in January, ahead of Ohio’s March primary, the freshman senator has been a quiet but key Romney surrogate. On the trail, he’s a frequent presence at Romney’s side, and he has traveled to North Carolina and Pennsylvania to stump.
But it’s behind the scenes, far from the klieg lights, where Portman has made an indelible mark.
On the ground in Ohio, he has freely shared his sprawling volunteer network with the Romney campaign. “He’s been a real force,” says Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou.
Portman backers played an important part in Romney’s narrow Ohio victory, especially in the voter-rich suburbs of southwestern Ohio. For much of the winter, Portman also informally advised Russ Schiefer and Stuart Stevens, two of his former aides who are now top Romney strategists.
After the Ohio primary, during the tail end of the Romney-Santorum spar, Portman took on an influential, if private, role in preparing Romney’s general-election operation in the Buckeye State. He consulted on hires and connected Romney aides with Ohio-based GOP operatives.
Perhaps most notably, Portman has impressed Romney headquarters with his fundraising prowess. Instead of seeking appearances on cable talk shows, one Romney aide says, Portman focuses on working his donors. Among Romney advisers, Portman’s fundraising savvy is as prized as his policy smarts.
On Thursday, Romney will be in Columbus, Ohio, for a fundraiser at the home of Les Wexner, the founder of Limited Brands. Wexner, a longtime Portman supporter, has donated to Republican causes for years, but Portman made sure to reintroduce him to Romney’s team.
A week ago, Portman brought Romney to Cincinnati, a few miles from his former congressional district. Almost all of his big-dollar donors were present, including members of the Lindner family, which operates American Financial Group, a prominent Ohio corporation. Portman warmly introduced Romney to his base, and his base donated $3 million to the cause.
“He has been the ultimate team player,” says Vin Weber, a Romney adviser who has known Portman for years. “He has managed to do a good job in a number of positions.” Romney appreciates the effort, Weber says, so it’s no surprise that the Portman veep chatter continues.
According to Portman’s associates, surrogate work comes easily to the mild-mannered Ohioan. Beyond his close-knit relationships with Stevens and Schiefer, he has been a high-profile booster in previous presidential cycles, most recently for John McCain’s campaign four years ago.
“He has always been the kind of guy who can go into small towns and be effective,” says former congressman Bill Gradison, Portman’s predecessor and mentor. “He has never been a tub-thumper or a shouter, but he’s one of the best out there, in terms of talking with swing voters.”
High-stakes presidential politics comes naturally to the 56-year-old senator, Gradison says. More than two decades ago, he recalls, a young and unknown Portman relished being an advance man for the Reagan-Bush reelection campaign, and later a volunteer for the Bush-Quayle campaigns.
Portman was elected to the House in 1993, following Gradison’s retirement and a special election. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he became close with George W. Bush. (A decade earlier, he had worked for Bush’s father in the White House as a legislative adviser.) As Bush began to prepare for his autumn debates against Vice President Al Gore, he and his advisers decided to tap Portman, who has a reputation for studiousness, to play the role of Gore during mock debates at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. Portman aced the assignment.
“He was glued to the television, watching Gore tapes for hours,” chuckles Joe Hagin, a Portman confidant and former adviser to President Bush. “He’d sit there, legal pad in hand, taking copious notes. He’d pore over the information. But that’s typical of Rob. He never does things halfway.”
After the election, Portman declined a cabinet post from Bush, choosing instead to be the president’s point man on Capitol Hill. But when Bush ran for reelection in 2004, he asked Portman to once again assist him in debate prep, this time by playing the role of John Kerry.
Indeed, from Bob Dole to McCain, every Republican presidential nominee since Portman entered public office has called on Portman during the heat of a national campaign. That’s what makes him different from most surrogates: He doesn’t just speak — he strategizes.
“He has always been very detail-oriented, as are all former directors of the Office of Management and Budget,” says John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and Romney adviser. Sununu, a former White House chief of staff, supervised Portman during the senator’s stint on Pennsylvania Avenue in the late Eighties and early Nineties. They remain friends.
“Whenever he goes out there as a surrogate, he knows what he’s talking about,” Sununu says. “He understands politics. He knows policy and how to get things done, but he also knows how to move people.” And that includes donors. Going back to the Bush-Quayle campaigns, “Rob has been a great contact into a group of very generous Republicans in the Cincinnati community.”
For the moment, Portman and his advisers are mum about the vice-presidential selection process. There is no official word that he’s being vetted, but according to a handful of Romney advisers, it would be a shock to them if he didn’t remain near the top of the list for the rest of the summer.
Early next month, Portman will head to New Hampshire, where he will host a series of Romney events. Other Portman summer stops are being planned, Romney advisers say. He is one of five or six regulars that they like to use on the trail — a group that includes other veep prospects such as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
For now, Portman may deny interest in the number-two spot, but his enthusiasm for Romney, and for playing a bigger role this cycle, is increasingly evident. His cross-country travel, his prolific fundraising, and even his speeches — all of it hints at Portman’s ascendancy.
Speaking Sunday at a Romney rally in Brunswick, Ohio, Portman played yet another role for the campaign: barnstormer. Clad in jeans, the wonky senator revved up hundreds for the Republican nominee, and showed his touch for making all politics local. “Don’t forget to try the pancakes,” he told the crowd. “They’re all made with northeast-Ohio maple syrup — and they’re delicious.”
Portman was in his element. Romney, standing a few steps behind him, clapped as Portman, his voice rising, blasted the president. Portman didn’t speak for long, only a couple of minutes. But he was there, and he was noticed — the quiet man getting louder.
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.