CLEVELAND — Sen. Rob Portman fell into line behind Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Thursday, telling the Ohio delegation here that it was important that the billionaire become president, a position that puts some distance between himself and his fellow GOP statewide officeholder, Gov. John Kasich.
“What’s the election about? It’s about the direction of the country,” Portman said to the audience at the Double Tree Inn near the Lake Erie shoreline, adding that the next president could have a say over the direction of the Supreme Court for generations, with as many as four seats up for grabs. “This is for all the marbles,” he emphasized, repeating the GOP mantra that Hillary Clinton is unfit to lead and make such decisions.
He also brought it back to his own re-election race, against former Gov. Ted Strickland, a campaign that will help determine the Senate majority in 2017. “As regards my race,” Portman said, “As goes Ohio, so goes the rest of the country.”
But Portman has been put into a difficult situation by the contentious presidential nominee. A former Cabinet member as U.S. Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget, as well as a former House member with long ties to the Bush family, the senator has spoken at each GOP convention since 1996. He won’t this year. And after working hard to land the convention here in Northeast Ohio, he has spent the week tending to off-site events, such as building Habitat for Humanity homes, kayaking as part of a Wounded Warrior event and spending time with his campaign volunteers (along with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and former Speaker Newt Gingrich) at Cuyahoga Community College.
Asked in a media scrum after his talk with the delegation whether Trump’s run would help his own campaign, Portman said, “Well, we’ll see.”
During his speech, Portman said national defense would be a priority for an incoming Trump administration and GOP Congress.
“That security umbrella in Europe with NATO is frayed,” he said in his speech.
But some of the fraying might have been the previous day, when Trump told The New York Times he wouldn’t necessarily abide by the long-standing treaty’s commitments to aid allies in the face of other nations’ attacks. That statement, backed up by the transcript the Times released to push back on Trump aides’ attempts to refute the story, would break with decades of bipartisan foreign policy protocol, and even put the nominee at odds with the GOP's vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told CNN “I disagree totally with what he said about NATO.”
Speaking to reporters after his speech Thursday, Portman didn’t come outright to condemn Trump’s comments.
"I think NATO is arguably the most important military alliance we’ve ever had. It’s incredibly important,” the senator said.
Pressed about sounding like he disagreed with Trump’s remarks to the Times, Portman offered a slight lifeline to the nominee. "I would say, his point [that] he would like our NATO partners to contribute more to NATO and to their own defense is absolutely accurate,” but he added, as if to underscore, “We need to keep NATO."
Portman’s race with Strickland is tight. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the race Tilts Republican .
“They’re loading up here in Ohio,” he said of national Democrats’ efforts to target him.
Considering the situation, Portman has appeared relatively relaxed and cheery in his time at the edges of the convention, which comports with his generally genial reputation.
Picking up on the sports high that the city is still in after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship last month, Portman has taken to using the Cavs’ late season slogan, “All In,” to pump up his supporters.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s leave here with that slogan in our heads,” he said. “Let’s be all in.”
But the Ohio delegation itself is far from all in on Trump. Just take, for example, Kasich, who was present for Portman’s speech at the Double Tree. Kasich got praise from Portman for his work as governor.
The hotel is a short walk to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Kasich on Tuesday threw a “thank you” party for supporters of his presidential bid, a standing-room only gathering where the former rival of Trump’s for the GOP nomination did not mention the New York businessman’s name. He has pointedly refused to endorse Trump, and has not stepped foot in the Quicken Loans Arena.
The closest Kasich got to mentioning Trump was in a biographical video that played before he took the stage at the Hall on Tuesday, in which his voice-over waxed about American traits like hard work and resilience. “This is what makes America great, not some politician,” Kasich’s voice intoned.
The inherent rebuke to Trump’s promise that he will “Make America Great Again” was unmistakable. And it was a far cry from Portman’s Thursday breakfast bear hug, in which he extolled the “new president of the United States, named Donald Trump.”
Kasich and Portman left separately from the event. And, while Kasich is likely to remain a surrogate for Portman on the trail until November, they’ll be going separate ways on Trump as well.
“This Republican National Convention has been a nightmare for Sen. Portman,” Strickland said. “Unlike Republican Gov. Kasich, who has shown some moral courage in refusing to support Trump, Sen. Portman is fully embracing the most toxic and divisive presidential nominee in modern history."