In a town where the two parties mingle about as easily as the Jets and the Sharks, Portman is known for working amicably with Democrats. And yet he has managed to engage in bipartisanship without courting a primary challenger from the tea party.
"He protected the integrity of a process that was bipartisan," said Ben Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland who worked with Portman on pension reform while they were in the House. "He is a serious legislator. I appreciate that."
'A little bit of that practical joker in him'
Portman has developed a reputation in Washington as a disciplined lawmaker who avoids rhetorical flourishes -- some like to tag him as "vanilla" -- but those who know him tell stories of a man who takes a calculated and methodical approach to his work, yet has a mischievous and adventurous side when he's off the clock.
And don't tell any of them that you think their friend is "boring."
"That drives me crazy," Lazio, who roomed with Portman during their first years in Congress, said. "It comes from people who have no knowledge of what he is truly like."
Lazio recalled a time in the 1990s when he joined Portman on a trip with a congressional delegation to Germany and fell victim to one Portman's many pranks. When Lazio crawled into bed one night, his toes brushed against something that felt like a live rodent under his sheets, leaving him shrieking as he leapt out of the bed.
Portman! Lazio thought.
"He somehow snuck into my room and stuck under my sheets this fruit that felt like it was hairy," Lazio said. "I knew immediately who it was. He's got a little bit of that practical joker in him that a lot of people don't see because he comes across as this serious policy wonk."
Portman is also an outdoorsman who takes on serious physical challenges. A kayaking and canoeing enthusiast, he paddled the entire Rio Grande in 1977 with schoolmate Dan Reicher and then hit the Yangtze River in China with portable kayaks after the government first opened up the country to independent backpackers in the early 1980s. For years, Portman has competed in canoe and bike races throughout his home state and he regularly schedules trips to paddle some of the most intense rivers around the country.
When a teenage boy from his neighborhood went missing in March, Portman, who was working a few hours away when he heard, canceled his day of meetings and drove home. The young man, 16-year-old Collin Barton, had been seen near the Little Miami River, so Portman put together a kayak search party and spent three hours combing the river into the darkness of the night. Portman urged his friends not to mention his role in searching for the boy, they said.
The boy, a classmate of Portman's own children, had been struck by a car, and was later found dead near a road.
Portman told Yahoo News that his neighbors would have paddled the river without his urging. But Freshley, who helped look for the boy, said that it was Portman who organized the search party and gathered the team together.
"He was the leader," Freshley said.
If Romney chooses Portman to be his running mate, the Ohio senator will face the most intense period of vetting of his life. Placed on a national stage, Portman will be tasked with defending his public record, and answering questions about his personal life and even his family.
And if he is chosen, Republicans will be forced to find someone else to prep their vice presidential candidate to debate Joe Biden.