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If the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination were all about headlines and buzz-worthy antics in 2013, Sen. Rob Portman certainly would be losing.
While some of the Ohio Republican’s colleagues with national ambitions have made news with 13-hour filibusters and by awkwardly reaching for water during nationally televised events, Portman has been relatively quiet. The former George W. Bush administration official and top Mitt Romney surrogate has been offering counsel to colleagues on budget issues and is giving personal assurances to big-ticket donors around the country that the National Republican Senatorial Committee won’t botch another chance to take back the majority.
Portman is also trying to figure out what’s next, a topic he’s loath to discuss publicly but mulls privately, according to those close to him.
In the first week of March alone, Portman took a phone call from President Barack Obama, then jetted to New York where he held five meetings with about 50 Republican donors, who he said all have serious concerns about the NRSC’s quality control of candidates. Meanwhile, Portman has been preparing to emerge as a prominent critic of the White House on fiscal matters, as well as of the Democratic budget, set to be rolled out this week.
“I’m constantly working with anybody who’s serious about [economic issues],” Portman told CQ Roll Call in a wide-ranging interview on March 6, the afternoon before 12 GOP senators dined with Obama.
That remark was aimed squarely at the president. Portman said he did not attend the Washington, D.C., dinner because he is not interested in a White House charm offensive.
“The president called me over the weekend, and I said I appreciated the call, but I want to know that it’s serious, and if it is, I’m all ears,” Portman said. “My interest is doing the hard work to get something done. ... The president’s job in my view is to provide political cover to Democrats to do what many of them know has to be done.”
Portman is most comfortable rattling off statistics about the deficit. The Midwestern wonk character is part of his surface appeal. Portman is a softer, less controversial version of the politician who ultimately beat him out to be Romney’s running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. Democrats are set to focus all their ammunition on Ryan and the House Republicans who are expected to unveil their budget Tuesday morning.