On the evening of May 16, in Grand Ballroom A of the Duke Energy Convention Center, about 600 local Republicans gathered for the Hamilton County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.
Many of those in the record-breaking crowd were there to see and hear the keynote speaker, one of the hottest commodities in the still very early battle for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination – Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky.
Some of the people in that room support Paul’s candidacy.
But we suspect that the majority of them – along with thousands of their fellow hardcore Republican voters in southwest Ohio – would rather see the man who introduced Paul to the crowd taking the presidential oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017 – Rob Portman, the junior senator from Ohio.
To them, Portman is a rock star in the party; and most definitely presidential timber.
But Portman – who has been on the short list of possible GOP vice presidential nominees in the last two election cycles – has said that he is not thinking about 2016.
Instead, he has been saying to anyone who asked that, right now, he is focused on only one thing – wresting control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats in this fall’s election. And he has a job to do in that effort – Portman is in charge of national fundraising for Republican Senate candidates around the country.
Then again, he has not said he won’t become a candidate for president in 2016; or that he is not interested in becoming another presidential candidate’s running mate.
Nothing has come out of Portman’s mouth like what his fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1884 when the Republican Party was trying to talk to the Civil War general into running for president.
“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected,’’ Sherman said.
You just don't hear politicians on the national stage making Sherman-esque statements these days.
There have been some signs from Portman that have pundits around the country wondering whether or not Portman has ruled out a run for the presidency in 2016.
The door may have opened, just a crack, about three weeks ago when Portman addressed the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and laid out his plan to reduce poverty in America.
“Constructive conservative” is what Portman called his plan, which vaguely sounds like the “compassionate conservative” persona George W. Bush adopted in 2000 and rode to the White House.
The GOP knows it has some catching up to do when it comes to issues of poverty – issues that have been owned by Democratic presidential candidates since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Other potential GOP contenders – Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee; have all laid out their own plans to combat poverty this year.
Now Portman has joined the crowd.
And, more recently, Portman took a high-profile trip to the Ukraine with Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat, to monitor that country’s election.
It gives Portman some “street cred” on foreign relations – not that he needed it; he traveled the world in his time as President George W. Bush’s trade representative.
And Portman continues to have a regular presence on the cable news networks’ talking head shows.
There are some factors that might work against the junior senator from Ohio running for president in 2016.
First of all, he is up for re-election to a second six-year term in the Senate that same year.
Ohio election law allows candidates to be candidates for both Congress and president or vice president in the same election.
But there are string of “ifs” that might convince the 58-year-old Portman that 2016 is not his time to run for the presidency.
If Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is re-elected this fall and if the Republicans take control of the Senate in November and if they keep control of the Senate in 2016, Portman could find himself in a position of enhanced power in the Senate.
He’s known to be one of McConnell’s favorites; the minority leader likes having the good-looking, articulate and reasonable Portman as an up-front spokesman for the party’s position on the TV talk shows and elsewhere; and Portman may move up the ladder to an important committee chairmanship.
Maybe the presidency could wait until 2020, if the GOP fails to win the White House in 2016; or even in 2024.
Not all Republican voters are enamored with Portman right now.
A year ago, he shocked many of them by coming out for same-sex marriage, saying that his son Will is gay and should have the same right as anyone else to marry.
“That was a gutsy move,’’ said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Politics. “The social conservatives in the party were outraged, but Democratic-leaning voters and independents just might like a Republican with that kind of courage.”
His support of same-sex marriage, Sabato said, might hurt him in the early GOP primary and caucus states, which are chock full of social conservative voters.
But if Portman were in the second spot on the GOP ticket, Sabato said, “it wouldn’t be much of an issue.”
Then, there is the issue of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. If Kasich is re-elected this year, he, too, might catch the presidential bug and run for the nomination – although he has disavowed any interest.
Would Portman defer to Kasich, if Kasich were to run?
Sabato is among those who think that while Portman would make a good presidential candidate, he doesn’t think he is going to run and said it is much more likely that he would end up with the vice presidential slot.
“You can’t have two white males on this Republican ticket in 2016 and expect to win,’’ Sabato said. “That’s why a ticket with Rubio for president and Portman as vice president would make sense. And I really think Portman would love to be picked as vice president.”
Rubio can appeal to Hispanic voters, the fastest growing voter block in the country. They have tended to vote Democratic; and the GOP knows it must find a way to stop that trend – even if it means softening its hardline position on immigration reform.
Portman’s support of same-sex marriage, Sabato said, could also help in a general election.
So, for Portman, the door is open, just a bit. Only time will tell if he decides to kick it wide open.