The Case for Rob Portman
Mention the name of former Ohio Congressman Rob Portman to any Republican party insider and you are likely to get an extended riff on his tremendous skills as a politician and operative.
Mention Portman's name to someone who doesn't live inside the Beltway or the former Congressman's home base of Cincinnati, however, and you are almost certain to be greeted with an unknowing shrug.
Portman, more so than any other candidate under serious consideration as John McCain's vice president, benefits (or suffers) from a clear divide between party insiders and average voters.
So, who is Portman really? And does he make sense as vice presidential pick? Today we make the case for McCain choosing Portman; tomorrow, we argue the opposite.
Establishment In Love
If Washington-based political operatives picked the vice president, Portman would have it hands down.
Portman is beloved on Capitol Hill and within the Bush Administration as that rare breed of politician who is equally conversant -- and skilled -- at policy and politics. (The Fix can attest to the rarity of that sort of politician; the only two who immediately jump to mind are Sen. Lindsey Graham and former governor Mark Warner.)
While Portman's status as the preferred candidate of Washington insiders isn't a great trait to have in a year in which voters are angry at the nation's capital and its residents, Portman's status among this group is more important than you might think.
The first obvious impact of picking Portman would be to quiet some of the whispers -- and even a few on-the-record comments -- from the permanent political class in Washington about the mistakes McCain is making in his campaign.
Because so many establishment Republicans have little love for McCain, they are far more prone to pop off to reporters -- comments that distract the campaign and subject it to process stories about dissent within its ranks. Having Portman on the ticket would silence many of McCain's critics and give the establishment something -- or someone -- to root for in the fall.
The second major benefit of a McCain-Portman ticket would be felt in the donor community. While Portman is unknown to most voters, during his years in Congress he represented an area that includes several of the biggest wheels in the Republican fundraising world -- Mercer Reynolds and Carl Lindner. Reynolds was the finance chairman of President George W. Bush's re-election bid; Lindner was a "Super Ranger" for Bush in 2004.
Both men are already supportive of McCain. But, having a native son on the ticket would almost certainly make Lindner and Reynolds more heavily invested (literally and figuratively) in the cause. And, in a fundraising environment where McCain is likely to be outspent at least two to one by Obama, every dime counts.
All About Ohio
The political class typically re-lives the last election when analyzing the next election. The 2008 race is no different.
Ohio became the center of the political universe in 2004 when Bush and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) spent millions to identify, contact and turn out voters. The Bush campaign wound up doing its job slightly better; the incumbent won the Buckeye State by 117,000 votes (out of more than four million cast) and went on to win the presidency.
The state is again shaping up to be a key battleground -- if not thebattleground in the contest between McCain and Barack Obama. Pollster.com, which aggregates polling data for the battleground states, puts Obama at 46 percent to 42 percent for McCain.
Given the primacy of Ohio to both sides' electoral calculus, putting Portman on the ticket gives McCain a potential leg-up in a contest that is very likely to go down to the wire.
While even Portman's most loyal allies acknowledge he is not a well-known presence statewide (southern Ohio and northern Ohio are different enough that they could well be separate states), they also dismiss the idea that he wouldn't help McCain in the state as the vice presidential runningmate.
One pro-Portman source pointed out that in 2004 Portman didn't get nearly the credit from the media that he deserved for helping deliver his home state to Bush. The source recounted that Portman spent months courting the key newspaper editorial boards around the state -- many of which were not initially interested in endorsing Bush -- and was ultimately successful in winning the majority of the major paper endorsements for his candidate. (The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Columbus Dispatch both endorsed Bush in that race while the Cleveland Plain Dealer, after supporting Bush in 2000, decided against an endorsement.)
The Great Debater
There's a reason that Portman was tasked to impersonate both former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) in mock vice presidential debates with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004 and 2000, respectively.
He's a quick study (allies of Portman recall the former Ohio member studying audio tapes and DVDs of Edwards' debate tactics and mannerisms) who thinks fast on his feet.
As we've written before on The Fix, the importance of the vice presidential debate is often overlooked but shouldn't be. While it is not as as widely watched as the three presidential get-togethers, it has nearly as much ability to shape (or reshape) conventional wisdom in the contest.
"[Portman] can discuss policy in ways that are easily understood and he is able to convey technical policy concepts in a user-friendly way," explained one former Bush Administration official who is favorably inclined to the Ohio congressman. "In a debate environment he would be superb and I would not want to oppose him."
Assuming Obama's top-tier of vice presidential picks is accurately reported, both Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) have significant debating experience (Gov. Tim Kaine is less of a known quantity). Either Bayh or Biden would be a formidable opponent in the vice presidential debate and Portman is one of only a few potential veeps -- former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the other-- who is a proven debater and could likely stand toe to toe with anyone Obama might pick.
An Economic Wunderkind
The economy is certain to at the center of the debate this fall and, no matter what McCain does between now and then, he isn't likely to convince voters he knows the issue inside and out. (In McCain's defense, Obama struggled to win over voters who said the economy was the most important issue during his primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
Portman is a candidate who could fill that void for McCain, having had experience with budget and economic matters during both his time in Congress and during a stint as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush Administration.
While in Congress, Portman served as the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and was also a member of the high profile Ways and Means Committee, which writes all tax legislation for the country. (Worth noting: Portman generally got along well with then-Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas -- a feat in and of itself given the Californian's notoriously difficult personality.)
Portman, according to those who know him well, understands the ins and out of the budget and the economy as well if not better than most staffers -- a deep knowledge that makes him a huge potential resource for McCain both as a surrogate in places like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the economy is the only issue,but also behind closed doors as McCain continues to refine his plans and proposals on the issue.
National Stage Ready
Portman is the rare potential vice presidential candidate who has genuinely been vetted on the national stage. He was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate as U.S. Trade Representative in late April 2005 and, just over a year later, was confirmed again at OMB. (Portman resigned from OMB in June 2007, returned to practicing law in Cincinnati and confirmed he was considering running for governor in 2010.)
While being confirmed for USTR or OMB (God bless the government and its many acronyms!) isn't the same as the fine-toothed comb vetting Portman would endure if picked as vice president, it's a heck of a lot more than most of the candidates being considered can boast.
And, putting aside the vetting issue for a moment, it's hard to over-emphasize how big a leap it is from the House, Senate or even a governorship to the national ticket. It's an exponential jump in terms of media attention and scrutiny; Portman is aware of the challenge, having served in several Administration positions and would likely have less of a learning curve to get adjusted to the klieg lights of running for vice president than almost anyone else on the list.
Given the short time between the close of the Republican National Convention on Sept. 4 and Election Day (just 60 days) it's hard to imagine McCain picking someone as his running mate who is so new to the national stage that he (or she) takes the first 30 days to get acclimated to the role and its expectations. McCain, almost certain to be the underdog heading into the fall, needs someone who is, to borrow a phrase, ready on day one. Portman fits the bill.
Tomorrow: The Case Against Portman. Looking for past "cases for/cases against"? Look no further.
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