But Portman’s admirers know that other prospective running mates have been lavished with far more attention. As Portman sat in this Columbus conference room, the grinning visage of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flooded cable news, following a casual remark Christie made the day before that Romney might be able to persuade him to be his running mate. In New Hampshire, Romney showed off the state’s Republican freshman senator, Kelly Ayotte, who also is considered a vice presidential possibility. A week earlier, Romney had squired around a young Republican star, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who later delivered a much-ballyhooed foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell had also emerged as fixtures in the vice presidential discussion, with Ryan especially portrayed as a kindred spirit of Romney’s, someone able to finish the top man’s sentences and make him laugh. Romney and Ryan had met privately last autumn to talk about economic policy and deficits, said someone close to the candidate. Although Portman, he added, was “much admired” by the Romney team and remained very high on the VP list, the view among several Romney insiders was that the chemistry between their leader and Portman “had not been great — not bad, he’s a nice guy, but just not great.”
Still, only one man knows Portman’s standing for certain. And Mitt Romney isn’t saying anything about the process. “Senator Portman is a proven leader and a trusted fiscal conservative,” says Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman. “He played an important role during Governor Romney’s successful primary campaign in Ohio.”
Portman remains as disciplined and self-effacing as ever. Asked the same question that was put to Christie the day before about whether he would accept the vice presidential nomination, Portman declined to take the bait. He paused. No political figure can pause longer or answer more deliberatively than Portman. Icebergs could form in his cool hesitation. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “My sense is . . . [lengthy pause], given all the various . . . [lengthier pause] . . . candidates he’s looking at, that it’s unlikely that question will ever be posed. He’s got some great candidates.”
Those close to Portman wish he would promote himself more. It’s not in him, says a friend, who adds that the senator would be perturbed if he knew he had said that much. The friend notes that, in March, Portman did not want anyone talking about his role in a search for a missing 16-year-old boy who had been last seen walking along a road running parallel to a river near Portman’s neighborhood in Terrace Park, a suburb of Cincinnati.