News Column

Portman Could Be Romney VP Pick

April 23, 2012

Jessica Wehrman

Rob Portman

If there's one theme of Sen. Rob Portman's Washington, D.C., career, it may be this: No sooner does he start a job then people start talking about tapping him for another.

At various points in his career, D.C. insiders have talked about him as possibly running for president or becoming the speaker of the House.

They briefly talked about him as a potential replacement for Dick Cheney as George W. Bush's vice president, then as John McCain's running mate in 2008.

He was mentioned for a number of Cabinet spots, including Treasury secretary, and served as U.S. trade representative and the director of the Office of Management and Budget before becoming a U.S. senator in 2010.

Now, the "great mentioner" -- that nebulous and constantly changing group of cable news pundits and political gadflys -- has named Portman as a potential running mate to former Massachusetts governor and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Portman is, seemingly, on everyone's short list, a list that also includes Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

With Romney formally launching the search for his running mate last week, Portman's name is destined to be part of a frequently mentioned list until Romney makes a pick.

To his admirers, Portman has the right resume and the background to be taken seriously as a vice presidential candidate. Republican consultant Barry Bennett, a former Portman aide, said, "He could be president from day one.'' To his detractors, Portman is as dull a candidate as Romney, prompting comedian Stephen Colbert to joke that a Romney-Portman ticket would be "like the bland leading the bland."

Portman, though, brushes off suggestions that he'll be tapped, saying, "I'm happy where I am."

"I don't expect to be asked," he said. "It's not something I'm looking to do. I feel like I've got my hands full here."

But then, a polite public resistance to career advancement has been a second theme of Portman's career. That's been the case since 2001, when President George W. Bush entered office, and people immediately began making noise about him taking a job in the new administration.

Portman resisted until Bush's second term, saying a job at the White House would be too draining on his family, who remained in Cincinnati. Then Bush tapped the former trade lawyer to serve as U.S. trade representative.

Within a year, Portman was promoted to director of the Office of Management and Budget. He held on there for one year, but, when he left in 2007, it was only a few moths before people began discussing him as a potential vice-presidential nominee for McCain. Instead, he ran for the U.S. Senate.

Now, in his first term in the Senate, he's viewed as competent, experienced, the "safe" pick.

"If Sarah Palin was the 'Hail Mary,' than Woody Hayes would've loved Rob Portman," said Bennett. "He's three yards up the middle.

"He's got a lot to offer. He's obviously very, very smart, he works very, very hard, he's got a lot of experience .... he's universally liked. He checks a lot of boxes."

But Portman, Bennett said, "would be perfectly content to serve in the Senate for the rest of his life. So this is not an ego thing for him."

"He's a talented guy," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who grew up near Dayton. "He's held a variety of different positions ... he's been in a lot of very significant roles. It's not surprising that when things pop up, his name gets mentioned."

Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, keeps on his website a "Crystal Ball" of GOP vice presidential possibilities. Portman is at the top of that list, in part, Sabato writes, because he's from a swing state, he's a former budget director and because he reinforces Romney's economic message. Portman, he writes, "is the safest of the safe picks."

The disadvantages? He could be held responsible for Bush-era budget problems and the ticket, Sabato writes, would be a "white bread sandwich."

"There's no excitement there," Sabato said. "You don't have spicy mustard. It's mayonnaise."

That Portman is not considered the most exciting choice has been a subject frequently commented on by cable talkers. Last week, comedian Colbert aired a spot featuring a long line of commentators talking about how Portman was qualified, but not scintillating. Colbert joked that Portman was, however, more exciting than Romney, and joked that Romney would be better off picking a headless Joseph A. Bank mannequin or a rice cake. "Nothing fires up the base like boring," Colbert joked.

Steep competition for running mate spot

A Quinnipiac University poll on potential vice presidential candidates reiterated that Portman is not necessarily well-known: Of those polled, 8 percent thought Portman would be a "good choice," 9 percent thought he would be a "bad choice," and 79 percent had "no opinion." That said, being picked as a vice presidential nominee tends to raise profiles pretty quickly. In 2008, Palin was a virtual unknown when McCain announced her as his running mate during a rally at Wright State University's Nutter Center.

Still, Portman brushed off poll results. "We're not doing things to raise the profile," he said. "We're doing things to get stuff done. My focus is on economic issues and fiscal issues and working hard in the United States Senate to do the job I was elected to do."

Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser and former aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., said now that Romney's running mate search is under way, he expects the former governor to undergo the same detailed process he has used throughout his career to make his decision.

"It will be consistent with a lot of big decisions he has made over the course of his business career and when he headed the Olympics, when he was governor and during the last campaign," he said, adding that it will be "very thought-out and detailed."

Portman's competition for the spot is steep, according to Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who worked for McCain in 2000 and has advised Rubio.

"The truth is the Republican bench for either running mate or a future presidential run is very deep," Harris said, "and so in some ways the Romney campaign has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose."

Harris said he believes Romney will follow the axiom of picking a running mate who does no harm to the ticket. He'll also likely weigh whether the running mate will help him politically, whether he has some sort of rapport with Romney and whether he is capable of being president.

"You'll be paying the price for a long time if you fail on any of those three," he said.

In 2008, McCain stunned GOP insiders when he announced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. She was a dark horse who had not been mentioned on any short lists.

But Harris said McCain choosing Palin was the exception to the rule.

"The majority of the time, nominees fail to surprise us all that much with their picks," he said.

Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic political consultant who has watched Romney's career develop, predicted Romney will be pragmatic in his choice.

When he ran for governor in 2002 against Jane Swift, he had to pick a lieutenant governor to run with him. He chose a woman to run with him: Kerry Healey.

"He plucked her from obscurity," she said.

Marsh said as Romney proceeds, "he's going to be driven by what's going to help him win. Period. End of sentence. Nothing more, nothing less."

She said Romney will likely look to appeal to demographics, rather than geography. He will want someone different from him -- not necessarily a wealthy white man. She said Susana Martinez -- the first-term New Mexico governor who is a Latina -- may be a more likely choice.

"If there's a mirror image of Mitt Romney, absent the stint at Bain Capital, it's Rob Portman," she said.

Source: (c)2012 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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