In the summer of 2008, Rob Portman was biking with a friend in Clermont County, Ohio. As they approached a hill, Portman did what he always did — he asked his biking buddy a question, and not the yes-or-no kind.
"How does the weakness of the dollar affect your business?" Portman asked; the value of the euro versus the dollar had climbed to $1.60.
Dan Freshley, a small business owner who sells motors to machine builders, considered the question and his questioner — a former White House budget director, U.S. trade representative and congressman. "Having our machines lower cost makes the exports better," he began. Before long, Freshley found himself going on and on, gasping for air.
"I kept talking, and I'm like, OK, now I can't breathe," Freshley recalled. "Meanwhile, he pedals away."
Rob Portman is not an exciting guy. His resume has the trappings of a good public servant, and his friends in Ohio say the senator is the most normal politician they've ever met. He loves his kids, he takes the time to go to community events, and he knows Washington enough to succeed but not so well that he's tainted by its toxic temptations.
But he's also not as plain as he's been portrayed in mass media of late, as speculation grows that Mitt Romney might pick him as a running mate. Portman has kayaked two rivers in China and the Rio Grande, owns an iconic landmark hotel, occasionally drives a Model T, and he built his own coop where his hens, Ruth and Estelle, could roam and freely fertilize the ground.
And, as Freshley can testify, the senator has a touch of a dry sense of humor.
"I chuckle about that, the way they say he's boring," said Freshley, Portman's neighbor who has biked and kayaked with him for eight years. "He's not boring. He's quite interesting. He's got a lot of depth to him."
Dave Wirick, a professor at Ohio State University who taught three courses with Portman before he was elected to the Senate, said Portman is a"funny guy because he's a policy wonk."
In one of the classes, Portman told his students about a spat he had with Condoleezza Rice when he was George W. Bush's budget director.
"Condoleezza Rice came in and said, you know, 'My agency needs a bigger budget,'" Wirick recalls Portman telling the class. He went on to explain that he had to put on his budget director hat and find a way to iron it out with the powerful secretary of state.
Judiciously, Portman wouldn't tell the graduate students in his course on budget planning how he resolved the debate. But presumably, it all worked out.
"There are times when I think he's in the wrong profession, because he's very smart, and he's very introspective," said Wirick, who admitted that even though he's a Democrat, he'll probably vote for Romney if Portman was on the ticket. "He's very analytical. You could see him as being a high-ranking attorney in the Justice Department or something. He approaches things very, very thoughtfully."
Social conservatives and members of the tea party who made Romney's life tough for the past few months, by rallying to the more right-wing Rick Santorum are hoping that the nominee-to-be picks someone in their camp to run on his ticket. Doing so could help rally the base, they say, similar to the way that Sarah Palin energized Republican voters who thought John McCain was too moderate.