The McCain Veepwatch, Vol. 5: Rob Portman

Name: Rob Portman
Age: 52
Resume:Former six-term Congressman from Ohio's 2nd District; former U.S. Trade Representative; former Director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget

Source of Speculation: A flurry of reports pegged to McCain's two-day swing through the Buckeye State late last week. Portman accompanied the Arizona senator on his Straight Talk Express to a pair of town halls--one at Xavier University in Cincinnati, the other at the General Motors plant in Warren--a closed-door meeting with conservative activists, and (more importantly) helped rake in more than $2 million for the candidate and the GOPduring a large fundraising event that attracted almost every Cincinnati area big-money donor and fundraiser who helped fuel George W. Bush's two campaigns. Portman "may have a leg up on all of the others jockeying behind the scenes to become John McCain's running mate," wrote Salon's Mike Madden on Thursday. " "Rob Portman delivers the goods," addedJonathan Martin at the Politico. "Let the speculation continue." And McCain himself made no effort to tamp down the whispers, calling Portman “one of the outstanding public servants in the next generation of leadership of our Republican party and our nation."

Backstory: Even though his national profile is Lilliputian, Portman is not new to the 2008 veepstakes. In fact, along with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he's the pol most frequently mentioned in the press as a realistic running mate for McCain. Much of that buzz can be traced back to conservative columnist Robert Novak--and, through Novak, to the Bush White House. On Feb. 9, Novak reported that "the front-runner in the VP derby," addinga few days later that "Rob Portman gets the highest marks inside the Republican presidential candidate's organization." By late May, David Brooks--widely read in McCain World--was callingPortman a "shining star" whose "resume is ideal." Still, it's an open question how far the Portman hype extends beyond the Bush-McCain Beltway nexus. "I think that buzz is largely coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," a Republican strategist told Salon last week. "It's like a college radio station--the further you get from campus, the more it dies down." Portman, for his part, says he's happy at home in Ohio. But by his own count, he's given "three dozen" political speeches this year, including "showing up at 15 Lincoln Day fundraising dinners for local Ohio Republican Party chapters," and appeared regularly on the cable-chat and conference-call circuit (see above video) to hammer Barack Obama on trade policy and taxes.

Odds: Pretty strong. Portman meets each of the usual requirements for a McCain running mate and excels in a couple of categories where few (if any) other candidates can compete. At 52, he's younger than the 71-year-old McCain--perhaps the key prerequisite for a fellow who'd be the oldest first-termer ever inaugurated--without being young enough or green enough to undercut the GOP's "Obama is too inexperienced to lead" line of attack (like, say, Bobby Jindal, who's 37). He's the only feasible Republican pick from McCain's No. 1 must-win swing state (it will be nearly impossible for the senator to reach 270 electoral votes if Obama swipes Ohio). He boasts 89 percent lifetime American Conservative Union rating that should satisfy skittish right-wingers and help solidify McCain's shaky conservative support. Meanwhile, his mild Midwestern temperament and (McCainian) reluctance to throw bombs on social issues will likely prevent moderate swing voters from running in the other direction. On the "more idiosyncratic" side of the ledger, Portman served as the stand-in for Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in Dick Cheney's 2000 and 2004 debate practice sessions--and apparently performed "just brilliant(ly), according to GOP strategist Mary Matalin. "He has a very fun theatrical capacity," she told Salon. "He can get into the character." Given that the vice-presidential debates provide a No. 2 with his or her only opportunity to really effect the election--remember Lloyd Bentsen obliterating Dan Quayle?--McCain might be well-served by tapping the only veep contender with a proven track record on the debate stage.

Ultimately, however, the most compelling reason for McCain to pick Portman is practical rather than political: whatever his pre-election selling points, he'd probably do more to help the senator be effective once he reaches the White House than any other VP contender. On the trail, Portman's experience as the top U.S. trade official and former director of OMB would make him a perfect economic mouthpiece for McCain, who's notoriously weak on what's become the top voter concern of 2008. But it's Portman's nuts-and-bolts understanding of how the executive branch works--especially with Congress on money issues--that should appeal to McCain. Portman was the first President Bush's liaison to Capitol Hill, whereworked to restructure the IRS and ran the Administration's efforts to pass a controversial unfunded mandates measure; since then, he's helped the second President Bush expand free-trade agreements and structure the federal budget. "Rob understands government to a degree and at a level that most people don't achieve without serving as vice president or president," Robert Paduchik, Bush's campaign manager in Ohio in 2004, told Salon. That's exactly the kind of sidekick McCain--a lifetime legislator mostly interested in foreign policy--will need if and when he moves into the White House. None of Portman's fellow VP possibilities have comparable credentials.

Portman, of course, isn't perfect. Virtually unknown beyond Bush's inner circle, he'd do little to boost excitement among Republicans for McCain's bid--a key consideration for a candidate who's struggling to inspire his base and compete with Obama for coverage. Even in Ohio, a diverse state with nine distinct media markets, Portman's "name ID... is maybe 12 percent," accordingto a local Republican strategist--which makes it difficult to imagine that he could swing the contest in McCain's direction (and his work on NAFTA and CAFTA wouldn't help). While Portman's resume is perfect for, say, an economic adviser, it's less clear that voters would consider him a plausible Commander in Chief in a time of international turmoil, and given McCain's age and possible plan to retire after one term, the "Is He Presidential?" bar may be higher this year (both within the campaign and among voters) than ever before. Finally, Portman's strong ties to the deeply unpopular policies of the Bush years would do little to deflect the "McSame" attacks that have plagued McCain since he clinched the Republican nomination in March. "Rob Portman isn't just linked to the failed Bush agenda," Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Alex Goepfert told Salon. "He isthe failed Bush agenda." Expect to hear that line about 15 times a day if the McCain-Portman ticket becomes a reality. It could end up, in fact, that the very part of Portman's past that would make him such an effective vice president--his considerable experience pulling the levers of power under Bush--will also make it impossible for McCain to offer him the slot.