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.
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."