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Romney's short list: Portman is case study in campaigning for VP

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 11:00 PM EDT, Thu August 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Portman isn't well-known in his home state of Ohio
  • Asked about the VP decision, Portman says, "I'm ready for it to be made"
  • Portman could be an asset in Ohio, a must-win battleground state for Romney
  • Some call Portman a bland pick, but Portman says pizazz is overrated

Editor's note: The 2012 presidential race is John King's seventh campaign. With presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney set to pick his running mate in the coming days, CNN's chief national correspondent looks at those believed to be in the running to be his potential vice president. On Friday, King profiles Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

Shelby, Ohio (CNN) -- At the edge of the Alt farm cornfield, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman gets a firsthand look at the impact of a punishing drought.

"These guys have crop insurance, which will cover most of their losses," Portman says of the Alt family, which has been farming this land since 1959. "But going forward, we need to prove predictability and certainty with a new farm bill."

On the one hand, Politics 101: a freshman Republican senator still not very well known statewide, back home for a visit with constituents.

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But there is more at play here. As Portman heads off to look at the giant farm equipment, a handful of cameras give chase; national media on hand significantly outnumber the locals.

Phyllis Alt tells Portman she is grateful for the visit and his concern about the drought. But she quickly changes the subject.

"I really want to ask you about being vice president," Alt says, drawing a laugh from her guest. "They told me I wasn't allowed to ask that. It's OK if you don't answer."

It is a questions he has been asked dozens of times these past few months, and it's clear Portman is relieved the end is near.

"Are you ready for this decision to be made? Are you tired of all the questions," CNN asked Portman during an interview at the farm.

"I'm ready for it to be made, you know? I am," he says quietly.

Portman: 'I think I'll end up being' in the Senate

If Portman is tapped to share the GOP ticket, the history of his home state will be a driving force.

"The road to the White House goes through Ohio," the senator says matter-of-factly.

Looking at the Electoral College math, CNN's David Gergen, a senior adviser to four U.S. presidents, takes a little twist on history. "You know, Lincoln said, 'I would like to have God on my side, but I really need Kentucky. And in Romney's case, he really needs Ohio."

Ohio roots are a major Portman asset, and there are other plusses:

• A packed, impressive resume. an aide in the George H.W. Bush White House, service in the House of Representatives, U.S. trade representative and budget director in the George W. Bush administration and now the Senate.

• Foreign policy and national security experience.

• A reputation as a pragmatic conservative and respect from his Democratic colleagues.

• A statewide win in a major battleground state.

CNN is told former Vice President Dick Cheney has told Romney he considers Portman the most prepared of the possible vice presidential picks and considers him the best partner to help a new administration get off to a productive start with Congress.

Former House colleague and Portman friend Rick Lazio shares that view, and bristles at those, even Republicans, who say the senator is solid, but bland -- even boring.

"If you want controversy, watch 'Jersey Shore,'" the former New York congressman said in an interview. "If you want to solve the problems facing America, pick a competent vice president to run with a competent president. Run on a record of accomplishment, experience, on finding solutions in a civil way."

Gergen describes Portman as the "insider's choice" and "clearly, I think, the most ready to be president."

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Some potential Portman downsides?

• Bush baggage -- President Bush left office unpopular among independents, and Democrats blame Bush policies for the depth of the recession.

• The flipside of an impressive Washington resume dating back some 20 years is this unflattering label: Washington insider.

• The bland rap.

• Polling data showing that despite his big 2010 Senate win, many Ohioans know little about their junior senator.

CNN raised the "bland not bold" critique during a chat with Portman this week on the edge of the Alt farm cornfield.

CNN: "When some of your friends say, you know, 'Portman, good guy, but he'd be a safe pick. Be bold, Governor. Be bold.' What goes through your mind?"

Portman: "It's fine. I mean, you know, I am a guy who has worked across the aisle to get stuff done. Someone who believes when you get elected to office, you are hired to actually achieve a result. So I'm not as much into the partisanship as some."

President Barack Obama has a slight edge in Ohio, and Republicans across the state make the case that adding Portman to the ticket could make the difference here as well as across the pivotal Midwest.

But Democrats like Hamilton County Chairman Tim Burke -- in Portman's old House district -- aren't so sure.

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"Like so many Republicans, he's been driven so far to the right now, and he's a Bush Republican who helped give us the economy that we're still trying to recover from now," Burke said in an interview at his Cincinnati office. "I don't think he gives them the state of Ohio."

But a Romney campaign studying the map would have to take note of what happened in 2008: Obama carried Hamilton County, a critical battleground within the battleground, and the one place in Ohio in which even Democrats concede Portman is very well known and popular.

While little-known nationally, Portman has had a special niche in GOP politics, including presidential politics, dating back more than 15 years.

In 1996, Bob Dole asked Portman to be a debate practice stand-in for the GOP rival the Dole campaign worried about most, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (now a U.S. senator).

Then in 2000, he took the role of Al Gore in Bush's debate preps, warning -- correctly -- that Bush should be prepared for Gore to wander from his podium and approach the Texas governor on the debate stage.

He also played the role of Hillary Clinton in Lazio's failed bid for the Senate.

"He takes it very seriously," Lazio said. "He looks up their body language, their nonverbal communications, and he really tries to incite the candidate he's working with -- to push them."

Asked about his debate prep niche, Portman says: "I don't know why I like it, but it is a way to find out what the other side is thinking and, I think to, you know, better refine your own policies."

Will he be too busy preparing for his own big debate this cycle?

To watch Portman in recent months is to see a case study in campaigning for the VP slot.

Rule No. 1: Insist you are happy where you are and will do anything and everything to help Romney regardless of his choice.

"I am going to be chairman of the Ohio campaign no matter what," Portman says. "So I hope to make a difference, you know, as someone who's active in Ohio and involved."

Rule No. 2: Rebut the critics.

"I'm proud of my service in the Bush administration," Portman told reporters at the Alt farm. "I was there as budget director for just over a year, and in that time we are able to put all earmarks online, which really helped to limit the irresponsible earmarks. I was also able to propose a balanced budget over a five-year period. Imagine that today."

He insists he can rev up a room when necessary but points to the incumbent to make the case that pizzazz is overrated.

"Looking back to 2008, you know, we hired somebody to be president who made a lot of commitments, a lot of promises, and unfortunately he doesn't have the experience or the record or the policies to be able to do what has to be done to move our country forward," Portman said.

"So I think we've learned from that, I hope, and learned that what we need now is, you know, serious legislators who, serious policy makers who know the country is in trouble and have specific ideas to turn things around."

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