CLEVELAND – There is a pattern to the political life of Rob Portman, as he reflected over dinner the other night. It is one that has brought him to the verge of victory in the Ohio Senate race, and conceivably could make him the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
Portman, a Cincinnati Republican with startlingly good looks, had returned home from his first stint as a junior presidential aide to George H.W. Bush when Bill Gradison, the veteran GOP congressman from Portman’s district, found himself on the losing side in a leadership race and suddenly resigned in January 1993 to become a health industry lobbyist.
Ten Republicans jumped into the special election primary two months later in the predominantly GOP district and Portman – armed with an endorsement from Gradison, for whom he had worked as an intern – won with 36 percent of the vote. He quickly established himself as an effective member of the Ways and Means Committee.
He might have risen to leadership in the House, but in 2005 another President Bush, this time the younger one, recruited him as the head of his White House trade office, later switching Portman to budget director.
After a year in that job, he moved back home in 2007, explaining at the time that he didn’t want to miss the high school years for his two sons, now enrolled at New York University and Yale, and their younger sister.
Coming into 2010, Portman thought about running for governor, but yielded to another former congressman, ex-House Budget Committee chief John Kasich. And then last year came a phone call from Washington, with Republican Sen. George Voinovich telling Portman that he planned to retire and – like Gradison did – offering his endorsement.
Portman did not even have to endure a primary. Instead, he amassed a giant war chest from Cincinnati business supporters and figures in the Bush fundraising network, and set out to cover all 88 of Ohio’s counties in a leased SUV decorated with signatures of his fans.
It was an idea borrowed from his friend Mitch Daniels, another former budget director who went home to Indiana and found the SUV a perfect tool for overcoming his liability as a big city (Indianapolis) policy wonk. Daniels has put himself into the 2012 presidential picture as a business-oriented conservative.
In past times, this would have been an almost automatic ticket to nomination, for Daniels or Mitt Romney or someone else who had established his business bona fides. But now there are wild cards ahead of Daniels – Sarah Palin and the tea partiers – and, of course, Barack Obama down the road.
Meantime, the timing could not be better for Portman. The man who has a knack for impressing those who can help advance his career has almost an 8-to-1 financial edge over Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher. A poll last week put Portman almost 20 points ahead. Unless it’s wildly off base, he will lead the GOP ticket here next month and go back to Washington with a Rolodex few Republicans can match.
Now 54 and a fitness fanatic, Portman has achieved his status by being smart, disciplined and a team player. Business people know he does his homework, and Democrats find him approachable. Except for Daniels, there are few Republicans who have delved as deeply into fiscal and budgetary policy, trade and health care as has Portman, who notably expanded the Office of Management and Budget’s focus on Medicare and Medicaid, even when Bush showed little interest in the issue.
Fisher has tried repeatedly in this campaign to portray Portman as the embodiment of everything wrong with the Republican Party – a budgeteer who created deficits and a trade czar who gave away jobs. Portman, thanks to his planning and his funding, appears to have won the argument with the public.
This year’s election will undoubtedly produce many new Republican faces. One of them to watch will be the man from Cincinnati.
David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.