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Portman the Insider: Will Mr. Washington Go to Washington?

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, June 29, 2009

In a political world where candidates are falling all over themselves to tout their "outsider" credentials, Rob Portman is a rare exception.

Portman, a former congressman and Bush administration official, is casting himself as a dealmaking insider in his campaign for the seat being vacated by Sen. George Voinovich (R) in 2010.

"I know enough now about where the bodies are buried [and] how the Senate works that I know I can be effective there for Ohio," Portman said in a recent interview.

Portman's résumé includes 12 years representing a Cincinnati area House district as well as two one-year stints for President George W. Bush as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and as U.S. trade representative.

It's the latter two jobs that Democrats have seized on to argue that Portman is fundamentally flawed as he seeks a Senate seat in one of the states hit hardest economically during a Republican president's eight-year tenure. The argument goes that Ohio voters won't be keen on electing a confidant of a president who remains deeply unpopular in their state.

Portman treads carefully when asked about the burden of Bush. He calls his time in those jobs valuable but quickly notes that "I was working for the administration [and] what I now want to do is to go back to what I was doing before, which is to be my own boss."

Portman added that he doesn't hear about his time spent in the Bush administration as he moves around the state meeting voters, insisting that the lone issue on Ohioans' minds is putting someone in the Senate who can help create jobs and work across the aisle to get things done. "People aren't looking back," Portman said. "They're looking forward, and they're worried."

Portman, however, is reluctant to look too far into the future -- particularly when asked about whether he may be one of the leaders the GOP so badly needs if he wins in Ohio next year. "I am not running to be the spokesman for the Republican Party," he said. "I am not running to be a national leader."

That statement aside, Portman did offer three ways in which the national party could -- and should -- heal itself.

Asked how he could win in a state that leaned toward Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Portman returned to his results-oriented-insider argument. Voters are looking for "people who can work across the aisle and focus on solutions and get stuff done," he said. ". . . That's my record."

THE INTERNECINE SCENE

As last year's unending primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton proved, sometimes intraparty squabbles aren't the appetizer but rather the main course.

Primaries are often devoid of real issues because the candidates tend to agree on the big things, and so the discussion often strays into the differing styles of the combatants, and occasionally into the personal realm.

It's for all those reasons that we at the Fix celebrate primaries. They are a political junkie's dream.

Here's a look at the five best intraparty squabbles on the docket for 2010:

5. U.S. Senate, Florida (Republican primary): Gov. Charlie Crist is the overwhelming favorite to win his primary against former state House speaker Marco Rubio, but that doesn't mean there isn't drama in this race. Rubio -- and his advisers -- are casting the race as a referendum on the direction of the Republican Party nationally, painting Crist as a moderate and their candidate as the true conservative. Several national conservative figures, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, are backing Rubio, while most of the GOP establishment is behind Crist.

4. U.S. Senate, New York (Democratic primary): When Rep. Steve Israel bowed out of the primary against appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, it looked as if what could have been a terrific race would pass without a peep. Enter Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Polling suggests that Maloney and Gillibrand begin the race essentially tied, and Maloney has already shown a willingness to take after her former House colleague in public. Gillibrand still has to be considered the favorite, because of her support from the White House and her strong fundraising capacity, but Maloney's roots in New York City -- home to a wealth of Democratic voters -- keep her in the game.

3. California governor (D): Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's decision not to run in the Democratic gubernatorial primary means it's a two-man race between state Attorney General Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The contrasts between the two -- Brown, at 71, is a legend in California politics, while Newsom, at 41, is a rising star -- are incredibly compelling and will present a stark choice for voters. And, given California's Democratic lean, either Brown or Newsom would have to be considered a favorite in the general election.

2. U.S. Senate, Pennsylvania (D): Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party in late April fundamentally altered the Senate in a number of ways, but one thing stayed constant: The incumbent will almost certainly face a serious primary fight. Rep. Joe Sestak (with more than $3 million in the bank at the end of March) appears ready to run, and polling suggests that Democratic voters retain significant doubts about Specter. The newest Democrat has a list of heavy hitters -- the White House, Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. -- on his side, but will it be enough?

1. Texas governor (R): Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison don't like each other much. Add to that personal dislike $20 million (or more) on each side of this primary and you start to get a sense for why it holds down the top spot. By the end of the primary, Perry will be an ineffective and demagogic chief executive while KBH will be a corrupt liberal (if the campaign consultants aligned on each side of the divide have anything to do with it). This race is going to be bloody, nasty and mean.

14 DAYS: Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor get underway in the Senate.

18 DAYS: The National Governors Association gathers in Biloxi, Miss., for its annual conference. Wonder what the topic du jour will be (cough -- Sanford -- cough!) . . .

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