Portman praises McCain, but deflects talk of interest in vice presidential slot

More than one Beltway pundit has pegged Rob Portman as a potential vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). It’s not hard to see why: Portman, 52, is relatively young, has served in the House and in both Bush administrations and hails from Ohio, the mother of all swing states.

Portman deflected questions about his name being floated as a potential running mate for McCain. He didn’t take himself out of contention, but instead shifted the conversation to talk about his interest in running for Ohio governor or a U.S. Senate seat.

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“I don’t aspire to be the V.P. nominee,” the former White House budget director told The Hill. “I just got home.” But he said that McCain, the Republicans’ expected presidential nominee, is well suited to win the Buckeye State this November.

McCain will help the GOP avoid falling victim to two issues that hurt its gubernatorial, House and Senate candidates in 2006: overspending and ethics problems, said Portman, a former United States trade representative under George W. Bush and an associate White House counsel to Bush’s father.

“John McCain addresses both of those issues very nicely,” Portman said. “He’s a fiscal conservative, a champion who’s taken on the spending debate, particularly the issue of earmarks that are unnecessary and irresponsible from a public policy point of view.” McCain also has an independent streak and hasn’t been linked to lobbying scandals that helped bring down Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and other GOP congressmen, Portman added.

“Those who say Ohio has become a blue state, with a Democratic governor and changes in the congressional delegation, I think they’re forgetting the fact that Ohio is always a swing state,” he said. “Voters who tend to decide the presidential election in a state like Ohio tend to be centrist, independent voters [who are] more fiscally conservative.”

Portman, who left the White House last June, doesn’t hide his interest in a run for governor in 2010, when the popular Democratic incumbent, Ted Strickland, is up for reelection. He also said that should Republican Sen. George Voinovich decide not to seek a third term, he would “absolutely consider” taking up the GOP banner. Portman added that a challenge to freshman Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is another possibility.

 “The great thing about politics is that I don’t get to make these decisions; it’s the voters [who do],” said Portman, who practices international trade law in Cincinnati. “I can say I’m interested, but we have a big month in November to make sure Ohioans choose the right person.”

In recent months, Portman has been doing what it takes to raise his political profile. Just last week, he spoke before two GOP Lincoln Day dinners. Last month, he campaigned for Bob Latta, who won a special election to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R). Portman also reminds people that when he left Congress in 2005 to become the U.S. trade representative, he donated $500,000 from his House campaign war chest to the National Republican Congressional Committee. (He still has $1.5 million left for another run.)

Gerald Austin, a longtime Ohio political observer and Democratic consultant, said that many Republicans never expected him to return after he left Ohio for Washington.

“There’s the insider network that has been watching him for a long time, because they believe he has a tremendous upside,” Austin said. “When he was a member of the House, he was the real power in Ohio in terms of the Bush administration — he was the guy you went to see if you wanted something done.”

Austin added that Portman still needs to introduce himself to residents outside of Cincinnati and the rest of Ohio’s 2nd district, which Portman represented for nearly a decade, if he wants to run for governor or the U.S. Senate. “The average Republican precinct captain doesn’t know who he is,” Austin said.

When Portman runs, he will likely stress his fiscal conservative bona fides. He praised President Bush’s attempts at limiting domestic spending in his $3.1 trillion budget proposal, and he chastised congressional Democrats for resorting to an omnibus spending bill last year that made it easier for lawmakers to attach earmarks. He said that tax cuts should be part of any government effort to jump-start the economy.

“We should be focusing on growth strategies in order to get the economy back into balance,” he said.

While Portman denied interest in joining McCain on a national ticket this year, he said he had gleaned some insight into what makes for an effective vice president during his White House tenure. “It’s the ability to trust and understand each other,” he said.  “And the second [factor] is the ability to govern an incredibly complex bureaucracy at a critical time in history.”

Whomever McCain chooses, he or she shouldn’t come on the basis of electoral geography, Portman said.

“I know I’m from Ohio, but I think that’s overplayed, honestly,” he said. “I think when you look at the history of vice presidential picks, after the fact you see it makes very little difference in terms of the decisions people make. The candidate himself or herself really has the responsibility to motivate the base and reach out beyond to independent voters.”