Sen. Rob Portman, the affable Republican from Ohio, wasn’t even a blip on pollster John Zogby’s latest survey of the 2016 GOP presidential field.
The Zogby Analytics finding published on Wednesday by Forbes says that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is leading the field with 20 percent support among likely GOP primary voters “followed by ‘establishment’ candidates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, with 13 percent each.”
Bringing up the rear are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 8 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) with 7 percent and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal with 4 percent.
Yet Portman suddenly is getting a lot of media attention, now that the National Republican Party has announced its choice of Cleveland, Ohio, as the site of its 2016 national convention – especially given the importance of Ohio in his party’s efforts to win back the White House.
Portman’s home state of Ohio traditionally has been a key swing state and bellwether that President Obama carried twice, in 2008 against Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and in 2012 against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Portman has been around presidential politics for much of his career – primarily in supporting roles or working in the background. He reportedly was on Romney’s short-list of candidates to be his running mate in 2012, before Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Portman told The Washington Post Tuesday that he was “not particularly eager” to run again but that “if nobody running is able to win and is willing to address these issues, then I might have a change of heart.”
“Having been involved in six presidential campaigns, I know what it’s like,” he told The Post’s Robert Costa, adding that he would not make a decision about entering the 2016 GOP sweepstakes until later this year or in early 2015. “Let’s see what happens, let’s see who runs,” he said.
The conservative 58-year-old lawmaker served as White House budget director and U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush. He speaks with authority on spending, tax, deficit, and trade issues.
In nearly16 years on Capitol Hill in both the House and Senate he has co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including reforms for the Internal Revenue Service. More recently, he came out in favor of same-sex marriage after learning that his son Will is gay.
Portman has shown an ability to work closely with Democrats, which he did in 2011 as part of the bipartisan congressional budget Super Committee. Yet he also hews to the GOP no-new-taxes line and faults President Obama for a failure of leadership.
Even so, Portman projects a far softer, more collegial image than many of the conservative and Tea Party firebrands on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
As The Post reported, Portman more recently has promoted an anti-poverty agenda. During a speech before the American Enterprise Institute in May, he endorsed efforts to index the federal minimum wage to inflation and said that the GOP priorities should include prison reform and an understanding of the plight of nonviolent drug offenders.
A downside for Portman is that he lacks true star power. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has compared him unfavorably to Romney for being “stiff” and unexciting” – a true “green-eye-shades” politician. Yet Portman is bright, experienced and thoughtful. As Romney has said, Portman “has demonstrated a kind of practicality that is appealing” to many in the party.
Zogby said Thursday he didn’t include Portman or Cruz in his poll that was conducted in late June, but would include them in his next survey.
“Portman can be a player,” Zogby said today in an interview. “He can win Ohio, is experienced, thoughtful, respected by all sides, a wonk. None of which means anything in Iowa, New Hampshire or to social and Tea Party conservatives. Otherwise he would have been the VP pick in 2012.”
Here are three good reasons Portman should be kept on the GOP presidential radar screen:
- Portman has appeal. If Jeb Bush doesn’t run and Chris Christie doesn’t bounce back from his “Bridgegate” scandal – both live possibilities – then mainstream moderate-conservative Republicans, including many in the financial sector, will need a candidate to rally around. Portman fits the bill perfectly.
While Bush has generated interest among mainstream Republicans and business leaders, he’s out of step with his party on immigration reform and other issues. Moreover, his wife, Columba, has a strong distaste for politics and reportedly is discouraging her husband from making the run. Meanwhile, the scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that seriously damaged Christie’s presidential ambitions just won’t go away.
- Portman is an easy sell in a general election compared to the party ideologues, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “He has wide and deep experience in government, is always one of the adults in the room, and is widely respected on both sides of the aisle,” Sabato said. “His stand in favor of marriage equality would actually give the GOP a shot at attracting many voters (especially the young) turned off by the Republican party’s hard-right positions on social issues.”
- Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. Portman’s home state traditionally has played a major role in presidential politics, and it is among a small group of crucial key swing states including North Carolina, Florida and Virginia that were decided by a margin smaller than 5 percentage points in 2012. Having an Ohioan lead the ticket would give the Republicans a good head start for a tough 2016 election season, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to head the Democratic ticket.
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