By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Jon Huntsman Jr. stopped in last week on his way to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich have all paid visits.
As Republicans position themselves for a 2012 presidential run, many have turned for counsel to Rob Portman of Ohio, a freshman senator whose experience in previous posts, including head of the White House budget office, makes him a sought-after adviser.
After less than a half-year as the junior senator from Ohio, Portman, 55, has become an unofficial point man for his party on economic issues, a trusted voice for presidential hopefuls and lawmakers on Capitol Hill on how to draw contrasts with President Barack Obama and Democrats on an issue pivotal in the 2012 elections.
In a chamber where power derives chiefly from seniority, Portman is an anomaly: a first-termer who commands more respect and wields more clout than some longer-serving colleagues. He’s a seasoned pragmatist in a congressional class better known for Tea Party-supported political neophytes who wear their inexperience in Washington as a badge of honor.
As many leading Republicans talk about austerity and steep budget cuts, Portman is telling his party it must also focus on economic growth and jobs, or risk alienating voters.
Grow the Economy
“Every time we talk about deficit and debt, we have to be sure we’re letting people know that this does impact the economy today and the aspirations for future generations, and I think that’s critical to solving the budget crisis. In other words, we’ve got to grow the economy to solve this, in addition to the budget restraints,” Portman said in an interview at the Capitol. “If we don’t talk about it in those terms, I believe we will end up losing the debate.”
He has also staked out a central -- if informal -- role in negotiations between Republicans and Democrats to rein in the nation’s $14 trillion-plus debt, pressing for a compromise that could pair entitlement cuts and tax increases when most in his party publicly refuse to consider any tax boost.
Portman said earlier this month that while Republicans “have our own preferences, we need to keep everything on the table,” a message he has reprised in closed-door meetings with his colleagues, according to aides familiar with the sessions.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, became the latest Republican weighing a presidential bid to seek out Portman when he visited him May 17. He followed former Governor Romney of Massachusetts, who has a presidential exploratory committee, and former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota and former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich of Georgia, both of whom have announced presidential bids.
“Senator Portman could be a very important player in the 2012 presidential election, either as a surrogate, an organizer or even as a vice presidential nominee,” said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron.
Portman, a Cincinnati native, worked at his father’s forklift dealership, Portman Equipment Co. A graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, he came to Washington as an international trade lawyer.
He was President George H.W. Bush’s top lobbyist on Capitol Hill and won election to the House in 1993 with the aid of a radio ad by then-first lady Barbara Bush. Portman quit after six terms to serve as President George W. Bush’s top U.S. trade official, then took over the Office of Management and Budget in 2006.
‘Trust of Many’
“Rob is a freshman senator, but he’s not really a freshman in the sense that he’s experienced, he’s known many of us, he knows how this place works and he has the trust of many of his colleagues coming in,” said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats.
While the soft-spoken Portman is a close Bush family friend and a reliable conservative vote in Congress, he has a record of reaching across the political aisle. In the House, he paired with Representative Ben Cardin of Maryland, now also a senator, on legislation to expand tax-free pension savings.
The two serve on the Senate Budget Committee, where Cardin said he doesn’t give Portman many pointers. “He’s a former budget director -- he should be giving me advice about this stuff,” Cardin said.
Republicans who worked alongside Portman in George W. Bush’s administration said while his style allowed for bipartisan dealmaking, Portman was a tough negotiator who pressed for fiscal restraint.
“He’s not one who tends to compromise for the sake of compromise. He was dogged,” said Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff when Portman led the budget office.
Portman was known to hand out green eyeshades to reward aides for noteworthy accomplishments. He gave Bush one at a White House meeting where Portman recommended the president set a balanced budget as his fiscal target, Bolten recalled.
“He always had that friendly demeanor” while also being “very determined, very tough and insistent when he needed to be,” Bolten said.
Other new Republican senators see Portman as a resource on economic issues, particularly deficits and long-term debt. “He’s just a go-to guy,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
When his Republican colleagues went home in February for constituent meetings, many carried 8½-by-3½ cards in their breast pockets outlining Portman’s jobs proposal, a centerpiece of his 2010 campaign. The plan became the model for Senate Republicans’ jobs agenda, calling for overhauling the tax code, reducing the federal debt and cutting health-care and energy costs, as well as ratifying trade pacts. Portman said he’s sent copies to any prospective Republican presidential candidate for whom he has an e-mail address.
“The economy will be the key issue, and I think the president is vulnerable on that issue if Republicans can properly outline an alternative,” he said. Republicans “need to do a better job of laying out the alternative vision.”
Leaders tapped Portman to carry their jobs message to the White House May 12, when he was one of the senators chosen to speak at a closed-door meeting with Obama.
His focus fits Ohio, a state hit hard by the U.S. recession that ended in June 2009. Its unemployment rate reached 10 percent in April 2009 and didn’t return to single digits until August 2010. The national jobless rate was 10 percent only once during that period, in October 2009. The state had an 8.6 unemployment rate last month, lower than the nation’s 9 percent.
Portman won his Senate seat in November over Democrat Lee Fisher, 57 percent to 39 percent. Portman raised $16.5 million to Fisher’s $6.4 million. Employees of Cincinnati-based American Financial Group Inc. and their families were Portman’s biggest source of donations, giving him more than $125,000.
His first day as a senator was no ordinary affair. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito gave Portman a ceremonial oath of office at a reception that drew Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, former Vice President Dan Quayle and several former Cabinet members.
His pedigree and standing in Ohio, often a key state in presidential elections, could make him an attractive running mate for the Republican 2012 nominee, political scientist Green said. Asked about that prospect, Portman replied: “No.”
“I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be” in the Senate, he said. “I’ve been here, what? Four-and-a-half months?”