A Republican Dark Horse for 2016

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is a viable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio speaks to reporters.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio speaks to reporters.

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The midterm elections are nine months away, so naturally pollsters and political gurus are turning their attention to who will run for president in 2016. To election watchers who absolutely must make predictions nearly two years out from the first primaries, I suggest keeping an eye trained on one particular dark horse: Rob Portman.

A recent poll from the Washington Post and ABC News pitted Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan against former governor of Florida Jeb Bush, current governor of New Jersey Chris Christie and Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio of Texas, Kentucky and Florida, respectively. An even more recent poll from CNN and ORC added 2012 hopefuls Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee to the mix. Not-so-noticeably absent from these lineups was Portman, the current junior senator from Ohio.

The big open question is whether Portman will decide he wants to run. Having opted to sit out the last free-for-all, many wonder whether his heart is set on holding the nation’s highest office. And that is no small consideration — see, for example, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who rather tepidly threw his name into the hat last time around only to grab it back out after his first poor primary showing. Save perhaps for George Washington, the presidency is not something people just fall into. The presidency is something you have to ache for and sweat for.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Should Portman enter the race, however, he strikes me as genuinely formidable candidate. Unlike on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton acts as a spoiler to all comers, the Republican nomination is up for grabs, and Portman’s resume is at least as impressive as anyone else considering a run. A small business owner back home in Lebanon, Ohio, he has also served as U.S. Trade Representative and Director of the Office of Management and Budget. He’s a deficit hawk — no small thing, considering that voters are increasingly naming the debt and spending as a top priority — and because he was working in the executive branch at the time, he did not have to take votes in favor of a number of much-maligned-on-the-right bailout and stimulus bills.

The GOP has a habit of handing its nomination to also-rans from years past; five of the last six Republican nominees had previously tried for president, and the sixth, George W. Bush, was the son and namesake of a man who was less than eight years removed from the Oval Office. Portman does not fit that bill, but neither is he an outsider to the process. He famously "played" Barack Obama during debate prep for both John McCain and Mitt Romney, and he has shown himself to be a talented fundraiser.

Add to all that his decision last year to buck the party line by coming out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage and it’s hard not to be curious about what Portman could do on a national stage.