When Republicans need to get inside the brain of a Democrat, they call Rob Portman.
"I don't know anybody who's done more debate coaching or surrogate work in debates than Rob Portman," Rick Lazio, the former New York congressman who ran against Hillary Clinton for Senate in 2000, told Yahoo News. Lazio asked Portman to play his opponent in that race, and he left shocked at how well Portman could transform himself into the former first lady.
"No wig, no dress," Lazio said, "but otherwise very effective."
For nearly 20 years, Republicans have turned to Portman, now a senator from Ohio and widely rumored to be near the top of Mitt Romney's list of preferred running mates, for help with debate preparation. The freshman senator has a natural talent for throwing himself into the role of the opposing candidate in mock debates. According to people who have seen Portman perform this feat, he nails it every time.
Since 1996, when Bob Dole tapped Portman to channel Lamar Alexander in a practice debate, Portman has played the role of Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, and most recently, Barack Obama.
"I don't try to imitate the president, per se," Portman told Yahoo News in an interview. "Just take the policy positions and some of the same rhetoric. It's a good way to learn what the other side is thinking and how they approach problems."
Now, Mitt Romney is said to be considering whether Portman can move from the role of Democratic understudy to Republican vice presidential candidate. If Portman is selected to join Romney's ticket, this time he will have to speak in his own voice.
'He became Barack Obama'
John McCain was preparing for the second national presidential debate in October 2008. Under the rules for the contest, the candidates would sit on waist-high chairs but have the freedom to move around the floor. McCain's advisers were worried about the visual image of Obama, a younger man with a six-inch height advantage, dwarfing the septuagenarian. Portman was instructed to corner McCain on the stage and intimidate him.
"He did it to the point of irritation," Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as McCain's chief economic policy director in 2008, told Yahoo News. "Which was the point."
"He was not just the positions of Barack Obama -- he became Barack Obama," Holtz-Eakin said of Portman. "Physical mannerisms, parsing of his voice, everything. He's obviously the white guy from Cincinnati, but Obama has a particular set of vocal rhythms. Rob got all of that."
The work of a debate stand-in can be daunting, given the potential of a particularly good--or bad--debate performance to change the direction of a presidential campaign. There is an exclusive list of surrogates in the political realm with the talent and focus to make the practice sessions truly helpful. The strategy, of course, isn't to engage in "Saturday Night Live"-style mimicry. But the best stand-ins spend days poring over old videos of the candidates they will portray, meticulously studying their policy positions and rhetorical habits.
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."
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.