Ohio GOP Chairman on Portman: ‘Rob's a solid conservative, but he's not a nasty conservative'

Amid ongoing speculation that Mitt Romney might choose Rob Portman to be his running mate, Ohians close to the Republican senator are bullish about the possibility that their favorite son could join a national ticket.

Robert Bennett, the longtime chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, is one of them. For months, Bennett has lobbied Romney's campaign staffers to choose Portman, who he says would take "Ohio out of play."

"I've done everything I could to put him in that position myself," Bennett told Yahoo News during a recent interview at the Republican National Committee headquarters. "I've talked to the Romney campaign."

Bennett's pitch on Portman's behalf to the Romney campaign is four-fold:

1. Ohio is a must-win state. Bennett contends that Portman would give Republicans a 3- to 5-point boost in Ohio, a crucial swing state that early indicators suggest will be closely divided in November. So far, however, recent polls show that a Romney-Portman ticket might not swing many votes in Ohio. While popular near his home in Cincinnati, Portman is still relatively unknown throughout other parts of the state.

2. No surprises, no drama. Unlike certain recent running mate selections, Portman wouldn't spring many surprises on the GOP nominee. As a former congressman, a director of the Office of Budget and Management under George W. Bush, and a U.S. Trade Representative, Portman's life has been an open book for at least two decades. "He's been vetted two or three times for major executive positions in government," Bennett said.

3. The perfect supporting player. Bennett argues that the low-key Portman would have no trouble --  unlike some of the other contenders the Romney campaign may be considering -- playing second fiddle to the party nominee. "He's not going to overshadow Romney," Bennett said. "He's very careful about that."

4. An independent man. According to Bennett, Portman could appeal to independent voters who may be looking for an alternative to President Barack Obama. "He'll come across as very competent. If you're trying to reach independent voters in Ohio, which is a majority of our voters, those are people who study issues and candidates," he said. "If you're playing to the independents you need to bring competence into it."

There's something else about Portman that makes him stand out, Bennett added: He's not a jerk.

"You know, the problem with conservatives sometimes, they always talk like they're mean," Bennett said. "Have you ever noticed that? Conservatives are mean. They never have a smile on their face. Rob's not that way. Rob's a solid conservative, but he's not a nasty conservative."

That's one sentiment that seems to be shared between those who have worked with Portman, both Republican and Democrat. They describe a man who avoids throwing barbs, even during moments of disagreement. Bennett's partisan counterpart, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, described Portman as "polite" and "not a pain in the ass" in a recent interview with The New Republic.

Regardless of whether Portman's name appears on the ballot next to Romney's in November, winning Ohio's 18 electoral votes will likely be crucial to victory. In 2008, Obama won the state by four percentage points by securing counties in populated urban areas and in the north. Four years earlier, Bush squeaked ahead of Democratic challenger John Kerry 51 to 49. This year, Ohio politicos are planning for another tight competition.

"This election is going to be more like 2004, the Bush-Kerry race," Bennett said. "That became a ground game race."

Romney's general election effort in Ohio has only just begun to unfold in earnest. His campaign opened its statewide headquarters in Columbus last weekend and organized a statewide volunteer blitz in every county.

Having his base of support spread out in the state's rural areas poses a challenge to organizing voters across the state, compared to Obama's largest group of voters based in Ohio's cities. To win, Ohio Republicans plan to focus their efforts on encouraging early and absentee voting, especially in the pro-Romney ag counties.

"We'll try to get those farmers to vote early so that if it's a nice day on Election Day we know they're going to be out there bringing in that million dollars worth of beans," Bennett said.

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