Spotlight is on Ohio's low-profile Portman

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By DAN SEWELL, Associated Press

WEST UNION, Ohio (AP) — You can almost imagine Mitt Romney checking the boxes in pondering whether Ohio Sen. Rob Portman might be a good running mate.

Experienced, steady Washington hand? Check. Represents key swing state? Check. Respected across the Republican Party? Check.

Well-known? No. Charismatic? Hmm.

In a year when being perceived as bland proved not to be a hindrance in capturing the GOP presidential nomination — the cautious Romney team probably prefers reliability over a propensity to "go rogue" a la Sarah Palin — Portman has emerged as someone often talked about in Republican circles as a strong vice presidential choice.

For starters, he has a varied, impressive resume:

—Elected seven times to the House.

—Held two Cabinet-level posts as U.S. trade representative and White House budget director in George W. Bush's administration. That also could be a downside; the Bush administration remains unpopular in opinion polls.

—Elected to the Senate two years ago with 59 percent of the vote in a state Romney absolutely has to win in November.

Probably as much as anyone, Portman would meet what presidential nominees always say is the top criterion for a vice president: ability to take over should something happen to the president.

"He knows the personalities. He knows the players. They know him. They trust him," said GOP lobbyist Jack Howard, like Portman a veteran of both Bush administrations. "Given the scale and nature of the problems that are going to have to be addressed not only on opening day of a Romney administration but during a transition — in terms of all the issues a lame duck may or may not deal with — Portman's a guy who you want as your wingman."

What Portman lacks is a high national profile.

He's made recent forays into North and South Carolina and Pennsylvania on behalf of Romney but has shunned appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

Portman put in hundreds of hours last year on what he recently called "the not-so-super committee" tasked with cutting deficits. The panel failed, but through it Portman cemented relationships with top Democrats like Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Recently more pedestrian fare has been on his plate: bills to combat invasive Asian carp in the Great Lakes and to create a commemorative coin to support the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

"That's my job," said Portman. "I'm going to keep doing it. I'm not trying to make waves nationally."

Romney has said little about the vice presidential vetting taking place in his campaign, and Portman — like others who've been mentioned as potentials — professes that he doesn't expect to get asked and is happy where he is.

He took note, however, when both Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, an Obama campaign co-chairman, talked recently about how Portman's ties to George W. Bush's administration could be used against him.

"Interesting; I guess they're worried," Portman told reporters.

"He's a very conservative guy with good manners," Strickland said of Portman. "That causes some people to think he's more moderate than he is."

Portman recently made a six-day trip to Israel — he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Jordan, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Asked while headed home if the trip's purpose was to burnish his foreign policy credentials, Portman said it had been planned for some time but was kept quiet for security reasons. He also noted he is on the Senate Armed Services Committee and its subcommittee on emerging global threats.

"This was part of my responsibilities as senator," he told reporters on a conference call.

Portman was an early Romney backer, endorsing him nearly two months before Ohio's March 6 primary, then crisscrossing the state on his behalf. Romney edged Rick Santorum in the pivotal showdown.

Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, will be a key state again in November. No Republican has ever been elected without winning Ohio. Recent polls suggest Romney and President Barack Obama are deadlocked in the state.

Other than giving Romney a boost in Ohio, Portman's potential help to the ticket nationally is questionable.

"You have to be a really close observer of politics to know Rob Portman," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. "He's someone who would have to be introduced to the rest of the country."

Portman says Romney has the upper hand on economic issues, from jobs to tackling the debt and deficits. He has cautioned Republicans not to get detoured by issues such as gay marriage, which he opposes.

"As Bill Clinton used to say, 'It's the economy, stupid,'" Portman said, sitting in his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck during a recent campaign swing through his old House district, which runs along the border with Kentucky.

He shows off his Spanish and explains he learned it as a youth spending summers as a ranch hand in Texas, sleeping in bunkhouses with Mexican cowboys. "I know a lot of bad words," he said.

A prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer — he has a bachelor's from Dartmouth — who became worth millions through family businesses, practicing law and investments, Portman was dubbed "Prince Rob" by an opponent in his first congressional race in 1993. Strong support in the eastern Cincinnati suburbs lifted him to victory in the Republican primary with little help from rural voters, but he learned Appalachian lingo and worked on building connections in the economically struggling five counties to the east.

Far from the Washington Beltway, people say with pride they're in the Bible Belt. Portman fits in. He's a former Sunday school teacher, a supporter of local efforts to display the Ten Commandments in public places and an avid hunter.

During a stop at the at the 207-year-old Olde Wayside Inn on West Union's Main Street, Portman acted out for supporters gathered around dining tables how a friend slowly pointed the .20-gauge shotgun Portman lent him and then bagged a pheasant. The crowd chuckled.

"He's someone you can count on," said Ron Baker, a businessman in the Ohio River city of Portsmouth. "He's easy to talk to, and he listens."

To the Rev. Peterson Mingo, pastor of the Christ Temple Baptist Church in urban Cincinnati, Portman does things for people without seeking anything in return.

Mingo, an ex-con who's lost five brothers to violent crime, met Portman more than a decade ago when he questioned the then-congressman about the "Coalition for a Drug-Free Cincinnati" Portman had started. Portman invited him to join the coalition's board. What followed was years of brainstorming sessions, church visits, family picnics and favors. Portman arranged for buses from his own church to be used by Mingo's church to take youths to summer camp.

"He is real high on my list in terms of people I love and trust," Mingo said.

Friends who know Portman as a witty outdoorsman, a skilled and daring kayaker and adventurer who's paddled down the Rio Grande and China's Yangtze River are irked when he's described as "boring."

"I don't take it too seriously; maybe I should," Portman said of the label, then added an answer that fit the description. "I really try to focus on my job as a senator and doing the best I can."

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Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

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Dan Sewell can be contacted at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell

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