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How Ohio Democrats View Rob Portman

Rob Portman has been enjoying his moment of buzz for a couple weeks now. The aggressively unobtrusive Ohio senator—a former congressman and trade representative and budget director in George W.  Bush’s administration—is the insiders’ top bet to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, and today he got his big Washington Post Style profile, a rather Seinfeldesque piece that was basically about the weird nothingness that is the state of being a veep short-lister. The piece did include one nice anecdote about Portman’s skillful portrayal of Al Gore during Bush’s debate preps in 2000:

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the staff for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush asked him to play the part of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman in mock debates that the Bush team had arranged for Richard B. Cheney, its desired running mate. Portman proved so formidable that, before the last of Bush’s three debates, he found himself in the dining room of the Texas governor’s mansion, playing Al Gore against Bush. He had prepared for the practice session by watching tapes of virtually every Gore debate he could find.
“There were only about a dozen of us in that room,” remembers the campaign’s policy director, Joshua B. Bolten, who would later become director of the Office of Management and Budget and Bush’s White House chief of staff. “Rob really threw some nasty jabs at [Bush]. Then, while [Bush] was answering a question, Rob nonchalantly walked up to him and invaded his space. Bush asked: ‘What are you doing?’ Rob said something like, ‘I’m coming into your space.’ ” Bush shook his head. “Gore’s never going to do that.” “He might do it,” Portman said. “He’s done it in other debates.”
Days later, in the real debate, Gore rose from a stool and walked toward Bush. Ready for it, Bush did a mock double-take and smiled dismissively at him.

Of course, it’s not Portman’s debating skills that Romney would be after, but his roots in a state that is essentially a must-win for Romney. (No Republican has become president without winning Ohio.) When I was in Ohio reporting the magazine’s current cover story about the effort by the state’s Democratic coalition to carry forward the momentum from last fall’s referendum over collective bargaining rights, I asked the Democrats I met with what they made of the threat of having Portman on the ticket. The typical reaction was dismissiveness—Portman, they said, has strikingly low name recognition in the state outside of the Cincinnati area, which he represented in Congress. And indeed, a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month found that adding Portman to the ticket had zero impact on Ohio polling: with Portman on the ticket, Obama and Romney would be tied at 45-45 percent, a blip different than Obama’s 45-44 lead over Romney without running mates identified.

People don’t know Rob Portman in this state and it’s folly for anybody to think that they do,” said Joe Rugola, the former head of the Ohio AFL-CIO, and now president of the state’s union for non-teaching school employees. “The reason Portman might be an attractive pick is that he’s so incredibly safe as a candidate. But he’s going to bring political baggage. No front line candidate over the past year has wanted to be connected with Bush and Romney would be making that connection if he picked Portman. That’s the big downside of Portman.”

Rugola went on to tell me, though, that Portman’s inoffensiveness gives him a definite appeal. He quoted former Democratic governor Ted Strickland, who lost his race for reelection in 2010, the same year that Portman won election to the Senate, and who said of Portman: “He’s a guy whose politics are wrong and whose manners are great.” Said Rugola: “That’s an apt description. He’s a very well-mannered guy.”

I heard much the same assessment from longtime Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern, albeit with a bit more of an edge. “He’s a disciplined right-wing ideologue,” Redfern said, emphasizing the modifier. “He’s polite. It’s dislike, say, Newt Gingrich, because he’s a pain in the ass. Rob Portman is not a pain in the ass. He’s polite—as he continues to vote against women’s equal pay, as he continues to vote for the constant erosion of the middle class, as he turns a blind eye to President Bush’s foreign policy, as he continues to gut the budget by half a trillion dollars...Some voters equate those pleasantries with your voting record, so we have to break it down and make sure people know that while he wears Levis instead of the designer jeans that Mitt Romney looks so uncomfortable in...still, wearing blue jeans doesn’t mean he doesn’t have just as offensive a voting record as Eric Cantor or any other Republican.” 

I also asked some Ohio Republicans about Portman, and got a decidedly lukewarm response. One social conservative activist in southwest Ohio—Portman’s turf—told me that he would fail to fire up activists in the state the way that the selection of Sarah Palin had done four years ago. “Portman is a good senator, I supported Portman,” said the activist. “My concern is that he is too much like Romney, an establishment, country-club Republican. Conservatives need someone who is really going to excite the base to make up the difference with Romney.” 

Not exactly a ringing hometown endorsement. But it’s worth noting that this could easily change—Buckeye chauvinism may well kick in if an Ohioan is brought on the ticket, giving Romney the few percentage points he would need to carry the state. And if, during the lone vice presidential debate, Joe Biden tried to move into Portman’s space, well, it sounds like the polite former budget director would be ready for him.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis