It is not uncommon for campaign teams to spend an entire week preparing for debates, with the candidate sequestered and grilled for hours each day. When the Obama campaign asked then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to stand in as Sarah Palin against Joe Biden in 2008, the team set off to a hotel in Delaware for a grueling "debate camp" where Obama campaign staffers built a mock set "to the inch and color" of the upcoming televised event. On stage with Biden, Granholm donned Palin's trademark red suit and glasses, and even adopted her folksy accent during the practice sessions. "Oh you betcha, they encouraged me to embrace her," Granholm, now the host of "The War Room" on Current TV, told Yahoo News. "You take it very seriously, because the stakes are really high. You want to create as realistic an environment as possible."
Portman's skill as a mimic of Democrats sometimes can be seen beyond the walls of the secretive meetings held for debate prep. "He does a little bit of an impersonation of me that's a bit eerie," said Joe Lieberman, whom Portman portrayed in vice presidential debate practice with Dick Cheney in 2000. "I've tried on occasion when I couldn't make it to a speaking engagement to send Rob Portman," he joked. "I feel like he's become sort of an alter ego."
Of all the Democrats he has studied, Portman said that Edwards was the easiest to pull off. "He's predictable," said Portman of the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee. "Real predictable."
An ambassador to Democrats
Throughout his two decades in public life, Portman has served the Republican party in a handful of roles: First elected to the House in 1993 after working as President George H.W. Bush's liaison to Congress, he left the House in 2005 to join the second Bush Administration as U.S. Trade Representative and then led the Office of Management and Budget. Portman was elected to the Senate in 2010 and was selected to be one of three Republican senators on the so-called supercommittee tasked with crafting a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan. During that period in 2011--a months-long slog that ultimately failed to produce a workable deal--Portman poured himself into the process. When the deal fell apart, friends back home in Ohio say Portman was crushed.
"That whole supercommittee thing took a lot out of him," said Dan Freshley, a friend who lives in Portman's Cincinnati neighborhood and bikes with him often. "He was distraught they couldn't come to a conclusion. He worked tirelessly on that one. He was sleeping very little and working very hard pulling these guys together."
Portman's reputation as an honest broker landed him the job as chief budget guru in the Bush White House, a part of his résumé that Democrats are preparing to attack if Portman is Mitt Romney's running mate in the fall. They will likely point to the fact that the national debt increased by $500 billion in the year Portman was OMB director and that he repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling.
Portman told Yahoo News he was prepared to defend his economic record and his work with the Bush administration.
"As you know, that was probably the top attack," Portman said, referring to his successful Senate campaign in 2010. "It's not a very effective attack. I happen to love that debate because you end up being able to talk about deficits at $161 billion rather than $1.2, $1.3 trillion. Unemployment was almost half what it is now."