But the consensus among mainstream Republicans is that Romney should pick someone boring, not a game changer, not a Palin. A Mitch Daniels, a Tim Pawlenty, a Rob Portman — a moderate and experienced Republican who can help persuade independent voters that Romney isn't the crazy conservative he had to pretend to be to win the nomination, and someone who won't outshine him.
Portman has voted solidly in line with conservatives on abortion rights, though on economic issues like the deficit and retirement security, he's known as a dealmaker. As a member of the failed "super committee" on the debt, Portman voiced support for cutting tax loopholes in a way that some conservatives viewed as a tax increase.
Portman has emerged out of pretty much nowhere. Not many people outside Ohio know who he is, though he's been in the news lately after getting the most support in an informal survey of Republicans at the party's state chairmen meeting.
"I think that he would probably like to be in the highest position where he could make a difference," Freshley said.
"He grew up in an environment where serving people was the number-one priority," said Bill Kilimnik, the general manager of the Golden Lamb, the historic restaurant and inn in Lebanon, Ohio, which has been owned by Portman's family since 1926 — and where Portman usually orders the duck breast and the lingonberry jus. "I think he would be tremendous at whatever he does."
People in Ohio who have grown to know Portman well say that even if he were to become vice president, he wouldn't abandon his roots in the swing state from which he hails.
Portman has forged a relationship with the parents of Matt Maupin, an Army sergeant from Ohio who was captured in Iraq in 2004, and later killed by insurgents. While Maupin was missing, Portman set up a meeting between President Bush and Maupin's parents, Keith and Carolyn. Since then, he's stayed involved with a group the Maupins created, the Yellow Ribbon Support Center, which sends care packages to troops and works with military families.
Keith Maupin said he and Portman spoke as recently as a week ago — he said Portman's Senate office is helping the group file tax forms for its nonprofit status.
"I can speak to Rob about anything I need to, to be honest with you," Maupin said. "It don't take long to know if the guy's full of crap or not. You know what I'm saying? Go look in the man's eyes, and you can tell."
"He don't forget where he comes from," Maupin added. "If he does become VP, I can probably knock on his door."