Handicapping the Veepstakes: Is Rob Portman the Answer to Republicans’ Palin Problem?

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Tom Williams / Roll Call

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio makes his way to the senate Republican policy luncheons, in Washington, June 28, 2011.

Part 2 in our ongoing series. You can read about Marco Rubio’s prospects here.

The candidate: Rob Portman, U.S. Senator from Ohio

The bio: Portman’s resume is illustrious and lengthy: Dartmouth and Michigan Law, followed by stints practicing in both Washington and his native Cincinnati. In 1989, Portman began a stint in the White House Counsel’s office under George H.W. Bush. Four years later, he won a special election to a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Ohio, where he served for 12 years, regularly racking up re-election with 70% or more of the vote. In 2005, Bush 43 tapped him to become U.S. Trade Representative; after a year at that post, he moved over to run the Office of Management and Budget. In 2010 — a perilous cycle for Washington insiders — he won election to the Senate with ease.

The case for: Portman has emerged as a leading VP contender in the eyes of many observers, and he owes part of his skyrocketing popularity to Sarah Palin. Her mangled syntax and manifest unreadiness hang heavy on the minds of Republican strategists. Many say the paramount virtue for Romney’s pick is to be the opposite of the former Alaska governor: steady and ready, with an unimpeachable resume and the ability to step into Romney’s shoes should tragedy strike. “Above all, he needs an anti-Palin: someone who will not overshadow him, someone who will not blow up in his face, and someone who will fit Romney’s play-it-safe, buttoned-up image,” wrote former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, one in a cacophony of pundits to hype Portman’s chances lately. After the Palin powder keg, dull is in vogue. And while the Ohioan wouldn’t be an electrifying choice, he is undeniably smart and seasoned, wise to the ways of Washington after a series of high-level posts. “You can’t possibly say he isn’t qualified. If he isn’t qualified, nobody’s qualified,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

(MORE: Handicapping the Veepstakes: The Case For (and Against) Marco Rubio)

Portman’s background with budgets, trade and business issues would amplify the message of the Romney campaign, which wants to make the general election a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy. Because he’s not a buzzy pick, Portman would insulate Romney from criticism that the Bay Stater made a purely political selection — while at the same time providing a potential boost in the critical battleground state of Ohio. Portman endorsed Romney relatively early in the GOP race and helped lift him to victory in a bitter Buckeye State primary. He would be acceptable to the base. On the surface, Portman is as safe as they come in a year when “Do no harm” is the first adage out of many Republicans’ mouths.

“There are a number of reasons to like him. I don’t know if he delivers Ohio, but he comes from the right state. He’s experienced in various aspects of government service. He’s a grownup,” says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “Rob is smart and incredibly likable, personable, not mean, not angry.” Unlike several other leading contenders, he’s hardly shut the door on the gig. Behind the scenes, “he’s really campaigning for it,” says one Republican insider.

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The case against: Viewed through a different prism, Portman’s strengths are also his weaknesses. The gilt-edged resume, the Washington expertise? Much of it was amassed under George W. Bush, who remains political kryptonite for independents. Portman’s stint at OMB would help Obama deflect attention to the ballooning deficits piled up during the Bush years and remind people of the economic crisis Obama inherited. The center-right appeal and business savvy? Romney has that already. Yes, Portman would reinforce the case for competence that Romney is striving to make. But he’s likely got the Chamber of Commerce crowd locked up already.

Which is why some strategists suggest that while Portman is impressive and low-risk, his selection would squander an opportunity to broaden the appeal of the ticket. “He’s another preppy looking white guy. A ticket of Mitt Romney and Rob Portman is one-dimensional,” Rothenberg says. “For Republicans, running against the first African-American President, when they’re winning white men easily but having problems with other groups of voters, it seems to be there would be an advantage of having someone who doesn’t look like they’d fit on top of a wedding cake.”

MORE: Why Obama Deserves to Lose