Youngstown, Ohio — Mitt Romney has left the building and the town-hall meeting has ended, but Rob Portman, Ohio’s rail-thin freshman senator, paces across the factory floor to shake hands with the lingering crowd. He spends 20 minutes with the metalworkers, listening to their stories. He lightly grips his hands at his waist; his salt-and-pepper hair is slightly mussed. His responses are crisp, calm, and full of numbers. In that respect, he echoes Romney, the potential Republican presidential nominee.
But behind the mannerly persona, Portman, like Romney, is a shrewd operator. Unlike Romney, he is a seasoned Washington player — and an influential lawmaker who has worked for two presidents. The pair’s stylistic similarities, midwestern roots, and contrasting career paths have spurred Republican strategists to tout Portman as a leading vice-presidential contender.
To GOP insiders, a Portman pick, should Romney win the nomination, would be akin to Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore. It would reinforce the nominee’s strengths — underscoring Romney’s competence, his economic focus, and his suburban appeal. Portman could also be helpful in wooing independent voters in the industrial Rust Belt, a region that Barack Obama painted blue in 2008 when he swept Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
Of course, Portman, who has campaigned prominently on Romney’s behalf, demurs when asked about the possibility. “It’s not going to happen,” he chuckles. But for now, he is one of a few people, along with Florida senator Marco Rubio and Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, whose names are on that invisible shortlist frequently mentioned on Capitol Hill, inside TV green rooms, and on conservative blogs.
Portman’s case was bolstered a day after his visit here, to Taylor-Winfield Technologies in northeast Ohio, when Romney won the Buckeye State’s primary — the crown jewel of the former Massachusetts governor’s six Super Tuesday victories. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, credits Portman for lifting Romney over Rick Santorum, Romney’s chief rival, who lost the state by 10,000 votes, or about one percentage point. Thanks to Portman’s statewide network and dogged stumping, he says, Romney “came in here a week before the election, down eleven points, and quickly caught up.”
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. And in Cincinnati and its suburbs, an area Portman once represented in the House, Romney won by 6,000 votes — more than half of his total margin. Santorum won 69 of the state’s 88 counties, but Romney excelled in the more populous places where Obama triumphed in 2008 — Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, and Columbus. Winning those swing cities in November, Portman says, will be essential.
Portman’s long history in southwestern Ohio, as much as his stints in the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, is seen as a positive by political professionals. Portman tells me that, as he reflects on his career, he finds that his family’s small-business background, more than anything, has shaped his principles, his moderate temperament, and his economic outlook.
Portman, a 56-year-old father of three, grew up in Cincinnati, the son of Bill and Joan Portman. Bill, a Cincinnati native, studied chemistry at Dartmouth and earned his degree in 1946 after serving in the Army infantry. A year later, still at Dartmouth, he took a master’s degree in business. Returning home, he went to work as a salesman but soon became restless.
Bill Portman “had a commission working for him, health care, a retirement plan,” and a growing family, his son recalls. “But he wanted to strike out and do his own thing. He is sort of the classic World War II veteran — optimistic about his future and his ability to create something from scratch. So he did it.” Bill Portman founded Portman Equipment Company, a forklift dealership, in 1960.
The business was not profitable during its early years. “My dad did everything he could,” Portman says. “It was a start-up and the banks didn’t want to lend him enough money, so he mortgaged our house.” Portman’s mother, the company’s bookkeeper, helped her husband secure a loan from her family, which owned and operated the Golden Lamb, Ohio’s oldest hotel.