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Rob Portman Holds a Key to Ohio for Mitt Romney

Freshman Senator Is Well-Liked, Has Ties to GOP Networks Across Must-Win Swing State

Mark Lyons/Getty Images

Sen. Rob Portman could help put Mitt Romney over the top in Ohio, a potential boost that has nothing to do with him joining the Republican ticket as Romney’s running mate.

Since launching his first statewide campaign three years ago, Portman has built a strong political network throughout Ohio, including in the rural counties rich in conservative voters that could be crucial to Romney’s success this fall. Perhaps more importantly for Romney in his bid to oust President Barack Obama, Portman has credibility with a broad cross section of the party sufficient to activate this network on behalf of others.

“Along the Ohio River, there’s a lot of people that will walk on hot coals for Rob Portman,” Brown County GOP Chairman Paul Hall said. “If he comes in and says, ‘We need to do this,’ it’s going to happen because Rob needs them to do it.”

Republicans have never won the White House without Ohio’s electoral votes, which total 18 this year. That fact and the influence the Buckeye State’s rural counties could have on the presidential contest are not lost on team Romney. The former Massachusetts governor’s first bus tour of the general election campaign cut a rare path through small towns and rural outposts in six battleground Rust Belt states, including Ohio.

Republican officials in rural Ohio counties confirmed that the Romney campaign has communicated with them regularly since the GOP primary concluded, including through in-person staff visits and invitations to participate in conference calls. These officials said they have not received this much attention since President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. In 2008, they saw Obama in their area more than they heard from or saw Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Romney’s outreach to rural Ohio is vital given his weak performance there throughout the contentious Republican primary. But his prospects against Obama depend on much more than rural turnout. Romney will need to exhibit strength in suburban and exurban battlegrounds near Cincinnati in the southwest, around Cleveland in the northeast, and surrounding Columbus in central Ohio. These are high-population regions loaded with swing voters and independents.

“Here’s a guy from Cincinnati who had never run statewide, and he did very well in northeast Ohio,” said Barry Bennett, an Ohio GOP consultant who has advised Portman. “He now has a network of folks from all over the state.”

Portman’s office declined to comment.

From 1993 to 2005, Portman represented a House district anchored by the Cincinnati suburbs that stretched into rural counties along the Ohio River. It is a GOP stronghold and a national stop on the Republican fundraising circuit. The Senator’s political coalition and donor network there have long been muscular.

It’s Portman’s ability to branch out across the state and forge ties with key Republican constituencies, including rank-and-file activists, tea party supporters and moneyed campaign contributors, that makes the former Bush administration official potentially so valuable to Romney.

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