SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There is no doubt in the minds of Republican National Committee members that Mitt Romney will be their standard bearer in the fall, and already consensus is building behind one potential vice presidential nominee — Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
In an informal survey of more than half of the Republican State Chairmen and national committee people at this weekend’s State Chairman meeting at a resort here, two-thirds said they believe Portman is the most-likely and best-qualified running-mate for Mitt Romney. The committee members spoke to BuzzFeed only on the condition of anonymity.
“He’s from Ohio, and we need to win Ohio, it’s that simple,” said one state chair.
Portman, a former Congressman from the Cincinnati area who was director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010. And the warmth Republican elites express for him stems much from a desire to avoid another risky, flamboyant pick like Sarah Palin as it does for his ability to help carry an important swing state.
“Romney needs to make a safe pick, and keep talking about the economy — and that’s Rob Portman,” said one committeewoman from the West.
Portman’s seeming inability to overshadow the vanilla Romney gives him a rare qualification — and potentially a leg up over the rest of the field.
“He’s not going to be Palin — he’s not going to be fighting to get in front of cameras, [Portman] knows his place,” he one Midwestern committeeman.
“He was born to be the guy standing next to the guy,” said another member. “He’s the type of guy who ran for vice president of his high school student council.”
BuzzFeed interviewed a random group of 45 members at the RNC State Chairman meeting, of whom 30 expressed a preference for Portman.
John McCain's decision to nominate Sarah Palin was a high-risk, high-reward calculation intended to electrify his party and to reach out to a key demographic group, women. But if McCain was a gambler by nature, Romney has demonstrated nothing but caution. And for the no-drama Romney team, Portman would be the cautious choice unlikely to upset any of the party establishment — no one interviewed had a bad word to say about him, other than that he’s occasionally dull — but it could leave the grassroots cold. Portman, who also served as U.S. Trade Representative, would deepen Romney's own core credentials of competence and economic experience, rather than "balancing" the ticket in any important way.
Indeed the establishment support for Portman would involve an expectation that dislike of Obama is enough to excite the Party's conservative base, who may be more interested in seeing former Senator Rick Santorum, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or Florida Senator Marco Rubio on the ticket, according to a CNN/ORC poll released last week. Portman was also the least-known among Republicans of those surveyed. A separate poll from Quinnipiac University found that 79 percent of Americans have no opinion of Portman as a Vice Presidential pick.
Rubio was the second most-popular name offered by the RNC members — particularly those from more conservative states. Most saw the appeal for Romney of running with a historic first Hispanic on a national ticket, but many expressed concern that he won’t stand up to scrutiny.
“He has some ethics things in his background, he has never been involved in a national campaign, and he’s a risk that’s probably not worth taking,” said a committeeman from the Northeast.
The Portman backers, by contrast, say his experience will underscore Romney's message.
“He just fits into Romney’s message of competence,” said a Southern GOP state chairman, who added, “he’s a respected conservative.”
Portman also has campaign experience that has impressed Republicans. Senior Romney aides gave him credit in Romney's crucial victory in the Ohio primary, in which the Senator stumped with the candidate, recorded robocalls for him, and helped give him large margins in regional base. And a McCain campaign veteran on the committee said Portman’s deep involvement in that race gave him a taste of what he’d have to do as Romney’s running mate.
“He was always around the McCain campaign, and was a major surrogate. He knows how these national campaigns work more than someone who’s only done a Senate race.”
“The best thing he has going for him is that he left the Bush White House after two years,” he added, saying that Portman has the experience, but is largely free of the stigma put on many members of the last Republican administration.
Rubio himself has suggested Portman as someone whom Romney should select — a courtesy Portman returned on CNN this week.