Last week, Romney publicly thanked Portman during an Ohio campaign stop for helping him win March’s close Ohio presidential primary. Romney beat former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) by only 1 point, and Portman’s Ohio backers said Romney’s compliment was more than the polite hyperbole that is typically offered by nominees as they barnstorm with their supporters.
“His endorsement carried a lot of weight,” Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou said. “Rob manages to pull all facets of the party together. ... They all like him. At the end of the day, he’s a unifying force.”
In 2004, Bush won Ohio by 2 points, in part by ginning up turnout in rural counties that many presidential candidates had previously ignored. Four years later, Obama carried the state by 4.5 points. He campaigned in rural Ohio enough to make a measurable dent in McCain’s margin of victory in the region.
In fact, showing up can be half the battle in competing for what is now recognized as a difference-maker region for GOP presidential candidates. This is particularly the case if rural voters view the nominee suspiciously, as was the case with Romney in this year’s primary — and with Portman when he launched his 2010 Senate campaign. Hall, the Brown County GOP chairman, recalled his opposition to Portman dating back to the first of his seven House terms.
Portman was perceived as an establishment, suburban Cincinnati politician in tune with business interests — and he was. But the mild-mannered Republican rented a Chevrolet RV and traveled to every county in the state. He occasionally slept in the vehicle. At nearly every stop, he courted activists and voters without regard for a county’s electoral significance, his supporters noted approvingly. Portman won the Senate race by 18 points, a margin no doubt padded by the magnitude of the national GOP wave in 2010.
In Washington, D.C., Portman has a reputation for being wonky, workman-like and boring. Ohio Republicans describe him as personable and a good listener. He remembers the names of family members and their interests, and he never fails to ask how everyone is doing.
Republicans believe the Senator’s political network will work hard for Romney if Portman asks them to, even if the presumptive nominee does not select the Ohioan to be his running mate.
“He does his homework and knows how we live,” Adams County Commissioner Roger Rhonemus said. “A lot of the county folks and communities trust his judgment.”