Concord, N.H. — It took Rob Portman five years to graduate from Dartmouth College. He switched majors twice, and he was rarely a habitué of Baker Memorial Library. Instead, Portman was a devoted outdoorsman. He spent hours on the slopes and even more on the water. For the skinny, long-haired teenager from Cincinnati, the Connecticut River’s strong currents were a refreshing diversion from Ivy League academia. The river’s rapids were also a training course. By 1977, Portman’s third year, he and some friends won a grant to kayak the entire length of the Rio Grande, from its source in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. They packed their bags, left Hanover, N.H., and headed west. For the next six months, Portman paddled, huddled with locals in off-the-grid Texas towns, and generally lived the life of a frugal nomad. He also perfected his Spanish, which he still speaks fluently. Portman eventually graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, but as he told me earlier this year, his best times were on a boat.
Portman, now a freshman Republican senator from Ohio, returned to the Connecticut River this past Saturday. He spent much of the day in a canoe, gliding past his old haunts. The official reason for the summer visit to his alma mater was familial: His 17-year-old daughter, Sally, was taking a tour of the school, one of four colleges she visited over the weekend. Yet this afternoon on the river was more than a jaunt down memory lane. It was, as ever, a fresh-air escape, this time from another sort of stuffiness: the vice-presidential sweepstakes. Portman has been at the top of nearly of every Beltway insider’s shortlist for months. As a respected and wonky lawmaker from a swing state, he is seen in many quarters as the default favorite for the pick, even though there is scant evidence about his actual standing or the selection process. His Granite State trip, family-related as it may be, only increased the chatter because Mitt Romney was on vacation a few miles to the east, in Wolfeboro, N.H.
The veep contender’s relative proximity to Romney, and his fundraising reception later Saturday for the state GOP, set the political world abuzz. There was widespread discussion for much of the day, especially on Twitter, about a potential Romney-Portman meeting. The news photographers staked out in boats near Romney’s lakefront home pulled out extra-long lenses, just in case Portman appeared on Romney’s deck. Romney’s advisers, for their part, were mum about the former governor’s guests (if any), which only stoked the speculation. Portman’s advisers kept the senator’s whereabouts private. By dusk, when Portman arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in Concord, it was anybody’s guess. Wire reporters told writers in the lobby that they hadn’t heard anything from the photographers on the lake. But Romney’s property is shrouded by leafy trees, so the lack of a Portman sighting didn’t solve the mystery. As Portman strolled into the hotel, a pack of recorder-toting bloggers peppered the senator with questions about where exactly he had been.
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.”
Unsurprisingly, Portman’s views on non-veep matters were more instructive than his cryptic words about the November ticket. Every four years, potential vice-presidential nominees scramble to define their record before the press or critics define it for them. They give speeches, interviews, or press conferences in support of a cause (in Portman’s case, the New Hampshire GOP). They also must field a host of queries about their career, and Portman did exactly that here in the state capital, speaking at length about his work for the George W. Bush administration. He served in two Cabinet-level posts for Bush 43, including budget director from 2006 to 2007. His budget tenure has dogged him throughout the veep season, and many Washington observers see it as his biggest liability. Indeed, the idea that the “Bush gig” is Portman’s biggest downside has calcified into conventional wisdom. On Saturday, Portman took care to defend his record at the Office of Management and Budget, talking up his push for a balanced budget and his efforts to make data about congressional earmarks available online. Near the end of the presser, a journalist asked Portman whether his OMB days will make Romney wary of selecting him. “I don’t know,” he said. But any fiscal hawk who examines his record, he argued, shouldn’t have a problem with it. “I served at a time when we had a strong economy, when we had deficits that we would die for today. I was able to propose a balanced budget, not over ten years, but over five years. . . . I’m proud of that record.”
Portman also defended the Romney campaign’s senior team, which has come under fire in recent days for how it handled Romney’s follow-up to the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare. He brushed aside the rising frustration on the right about the campaign’s operation. “There has never been a campaign where there hasn’t been sniping from the outside and second-guessing,” he said. “I hear the same sometimes from the Democratic side in terms of President Obama’s campaign, so that’s to be expected.” It is “ridiculous,” he added, for conservatives to call Romney’s position on health care a variation on the president’s policy. Midway through the press conference, and without prompting, he boosted Romney, touting the former governor’s “aggressive” opposition to Obamacare. Portman called the Massachusetts health-care program a “very different law” from the federal health-care statute. “One is at the state level, and one is at the federal level,” he continued, calling the difference an important political distinction. On whether Obamacare’s “penalty” is a tax, he echoed Romney’s comments to CBS News last week: “It’s not up to me. It’s up to the Supreme Court, and it’s a tax.”
For the rest of the presentation, Portman focused on what he talks about every day on Capitol Hill: jobs. As he often does on the stump, he spoke about his late father, Bill Portman, who founded Portman Equipment Company a half-century ago after graduating from Dartmouth. “My family comes out of that background,” he said, touching the shoulder of the man to his left, Steve Duprey, who owns the Courtyard Marriott and serves as a Republican committeeman. “My father left his job as a salesman to start his own business,” Portman said as Duprey nodded. “There is so much uncertainty out there, and the government in Washington doesn’t seem to get it.” What’s needed, he said, is a “new business environment” bolstered by pro-growth policies. And about those Bain attacks? Portman was incredulous: “I frankly wonder why the Obama campaign wants to talk so much about [Romney’s] private-sector experience.”
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.