He had many reasons for not wanting to talk about it — the issue of sensitivity to the family being chief among them. But he also did not want to be seen as exploiting a tragedy. Everything he and other vice presidential prospects uttered was fodder for character analysis and political danger. Sometimes merely talking about good deeds is playing with fire. Portman wanted to make it clear that he had not raised the subject.
His aides sat silently. Minutes after a speech Portman had delivered at Ohio State University on energy issues, they had brought him here to this campus conference room, away from a pack of local reporters whose numbers had steadily grown since the vice presidential buzz began.
He had begun his political climb as a hardworking subordinate operating in neatly appointed rooms much like this one. A young trade lawyer steeped in Republican politics, he honed policy ideas for the administration of George H.W. Bush as an associate White House counsel. Soon, he rose to become the president’s chief liaison to Congress, as director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
In no small part since, he has ascended on the strength of his connections to two different Bush administrations. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the staff for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush asked him to play the part of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman in mock debates that the Bush team had arranged for Richard B. Cheney, its desired running mate. Portman proved so formidable that, before the last of Bush’s three debates, he found himself in the dining room of the Texas governor’s mansion, playing Al Gore against Bush. He had prepared for the practice session by watching tapes of virtually every Gore debate he could find.
“There were only about a dozen of us in that room,” remembers the campaign’s policy director, Joshua B. Bolten, who would later become director of the Office of Management and Budget and Bush’s White House chief of staff. “Rob really threw some nasty jabs at [Bush]. Then, while [Bush] was answering a question, Rob nonchalantly walked up to him and invaded his space. Bush asked: ‘What are you doing?’ Rob said something like, ‘I’m coming into your space.’ ”
Bush shook his head. “Gore’s never going to do that.”
“He might do it,” Portman said. “He’s done it in other debates.”
Days later, in the real debate, Gore rose from a stool and walked toward Bush. Ready for it, Bush did a mock double-take and smiled dismissively at him.