CLEVELAND — Rob Portman is trying to keep the Republican National Convention — and Donald Trump — at arm’s length this week.
It’s proving easier said than done.
On Monday, the Ohio Republican held a thank-you rally for hundreds of his college-aged volunteers at a local community college located about a mile from the RNC’s main stage. It was the kind of event Portman’s campaign prefers, focused on his own re-election race instead of the presidential contest or the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee.
The distance the Portman campaign is trying to keep from Trump explains why he's opted against speaking at the convention, choosing instead to host a series of apolitical events like building homes for Habitat for Humanity (Monday) and kayaking with wounded veterans (Tuesday) in the Cleveland area.
But when the rally ended, the reporters who surrounded Portman didn’t ask about his campaign’s voter-outreach effort or his position on trade . They wanted to know what Portman thought of the comments of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort earlier in the day, when he suggested Ohio Gov. John Kasich was “embarrassing his state .”
“I didn’t hear the remarks, but I think John is not an embarrassment … he’s a very valuable member of the team here,” Portman said. “And he’s doing a great job.”
Manafort also said that Portman was upset with Kasich because he had yet to endorse Trump. Portman was asked if that was true.
“No,” he said.
The senator was then asked if he was surprised that Manafort had invoked his name in the apparent feud with the governor.
“No,” Portman responded, laughing.
Portman is locked in a tough re-election fight against Democratic nominee Ted Strickland, a race both parties believe could tip the balance of power in the Senate. His biggest challenge so far has been striking the right balance with Trump, careful not to alienate the GOP leader's core supporters but also making sure to denounce him over some of his more controversial statements.
His presence in Cleveland this week, including the questions about Manafort’s criticism of Kasich, has been a microcosm of that dilemma. Unlike many other re-election-seeking Republican senators who have skipped the convention entirely to campaign in their states — like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania or Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — Portman couldn’t ignore his party’s biggest gathering when it takes place in his backyard.
Portman isn’t avoiding the convention entirely: He visited the convention floor Monday after his rally. He plans to head back there later this week, according to a spokeswoman, and he’ll address the Ohio GOP delegation at their hotel on Wednesday.
But he’s not speaking at the convention, much less playing unofficial host for an event in his home state. And that’s in keeping, his top campaign aide says, with a campaign that will do what it believes is necessary to win.
“Every campaign focuses on wining and getting our message out, the message of the campaign, and that’s what we’re focused on,” said Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager. “Rob has said since day one that he supports Trump, he supports the nominee. We’re focused on beating Ted Strickland.”
For his part, Strickland and his campaign have aggressively sought to tie Portman to Trump this week, arguing that Portman’s hands-off approach to the RNC won’t save him in the public’s eyes.
“He’s here in Cleveland this week with Donald Trump, and he’s perhaps trying to hide from the Donald,” Strickland said Sunday during a press conference in a local union hall. “But quite frankly, unless he finds a big rock somewhere he can crawl under, he cannot hide form his support for Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s toxic agenda.”