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Portman Is GOP’s Point Man in Ohio

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Freshman Sen. Rob Portman (left), seen Tuesday with Sen. Jon Kyl, is remaining neutral in Republican presidential politics, helping all candidates in Ohio.

“I think all roads to the White House lead through Ohio and maybe a couple other states,” Portman said. “What I’m trying to do is being sure that they’re understanding the importance of Ohio and that I’m introducing candidates to Republican activists, grass-roots activists and others who can be helpful in the campaign. It’s been exciting for Ohio activists to have that kind of access. It’s not like New Hampshire where you get to meet them three or four times personally.”

The winner of the past 10 presidential elections won Ohio, with the state proving particularly crucial to victory in the past three contests. Portman has varying relationships with some of the Republicans weighing 2012 bids.

The Senator worked closely with Pawlenty on McCain’s 2008 campaign. The two get along well and talk on occasion. Portman described Romney as a friend — although the relationship appears less developed than what he and Pawlenty enjoy — and he served with Gingrich in the House during the 1990s. Daniels preceded Portman as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration, and the Ohio Republican said the Indiana governor offered him helpful advice when he was promoted to the job from U.S. trade representative. 

Republican operatives for a few of the likely GOP presidential candidates said Portman could be a helpful supporter to have in any general election campaign, with one dubbing the Senator “a go-to kind of guy if you want to get around Ohio.”

“Gov. Pawlenty campaigned hard for Rob Portman last year and returned to Ohio last month to join the Senator at a great Republican gathering in the Cincinnati area,” Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said. He called Portman a “strong leader” but wouldn’t offer any hints about whether Pawlenty would put Portman on his dream short list. “We still don’t know who all is going to run for president, so obviously it’s way too premature to also start speculating about vice president,” Conant said.

But one Republican operative stated the obvious: “Portman would be on any short list.”

Portman has been a Senator for only 10 weeks but is not viewed as a typical freshman. He arrived in the chamber with an extensive résumé and reputation for explaining complex economic issues in understandable terms, and he has been given wide latitude by Senate Republicans leaders to drive the debate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), during a Monday news conference with Portman and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), told reporters about the Ohio Republican: “We are fortunate to have a genuine trade expert in our Conference.” 

Portman pointedly did not rule out running for a Republican Conference leadership slot in the next Congress, when slots will be open. But the Senator, who while serving in the House in the early 2000s was the designated liaison between House Republicans and the Bush administration, said he would do so only if he “thought it would help Ohio. I was in leadership in the House and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.” 

Although the soft-spoken Portman is sometimes described as overly cautious, he is credited with understanding the role politics plays in shaping policy.

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