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York: Passed-over Portman shines in Ohio campaign

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) (L) campaigns for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) during a Sept. 25 rally September 25, 2012 at Dayton International Airport. (Getty Images)

CLEVELAND -- One observation from a few days of watching the Romney-Ryan team campaign in Ohio: Rob Portman is very good. At least in his home state, which just happens to be one of the two most important in the presidential race, the man Mitt Romney passed over for vice president is a very effective campaigner.

Republican sources count more than 20 Portman appearances for Romney-Ryan in Ohio so far, plus more fundraisers. Speaking to audiences on his home turf -- Portman was born and raised in Cincinnati -- Portman is relaxed, sharp and persuasive. And, apparently, increasingly well-liked; last month, the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling reported Portman "has benefited from some good press surrounding his VP buzz," with a job approval rating of 38 percent, versus disapproval of 31 percent, reflecting an improved status with both independents and Republicans.

Amid all the talk among conservatives that Romney is not making good use of Ryan -- that Romney's campaign team is muzzling Ryan, keeping him from stressing the budget and entitlement reforms that are his life's work -- listening to Portman on the stump is a reminder that Romney could have chosen a different path. Especially since Portman, whose presence conveys experience and dependability, is a known commodity in a state that is at or near the top of Romney's must-win list. Ryan, whose youth often overshadows other impressions he makes on voters, understandably doesn't have the same status in Ohio as its home-state senator.

With debates coming up, audiences hearing Portman are also reminded of his near-legendary status as a debater. Back in 2008, Portman played Barack Obama in John McCain's debate preparations, and there's little doubt that Portman's Obama kicked McCain around quite a bit. "I hate Rob Portman to this day," McCain joked recently.

Now, Portman is playing Obama again, this time in Mitt Romney's debate prep. "How come Rob always get chosen as the guy everybody uses to practice debating against?" asks a longtime friend. The reason is, he's good at it. If he were debating Joe Biden next month, Biden might end up hating him, too.

Would choosing Portman as his running mate have boosted Romney as he struggles in Ohio? In late August, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett told a local paper, the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, that a Portman choice would have been "worth three to five points to [Republicans] in Ohio and would have probably taken Ohio out of play." Asked about Portman's possibilities now, another friend says, "I think Rob would have helped Gov. Romney in Ohio, but the choice has been made."

Of course, even if Portman helped in Ohio, would he have helped elsewhere? After all, Florida is every bit as critical to Romney's chances as Ohio (in the veepstakes, Romney also passed over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio), and it could be that Ryan will generate more votes in the Sunshine State than Portman. In addition, there is continuing enthusiasm among many conservatives nationwide over the Ryan choice; it seems unlikely the reaction would have been quite so favorable had Portman been the pick.

On the other hand, some of the rationale behind Ryan seems to have faded, as it appears Republicans have cooled on the strategy of placing the issue of Medicare reform -- Ryan's specialty -- at the center of the presidential debate. For a while after the Ryan choice was announced, the GOP went on offense on Medicare, with some Republicans believing they had finally cracked the code for attacking Democrats on what had been an unassailable Democratic issue. Now, however, several polls show Democrats with a double-digit lead on the question of which candidate would best handle Medicare. If those polls are correct, the code remains uncracked.

Portman was clearly disappointed last month when Romney chose Ryan. But he's been a dedicated team player ever since. When the campaign is over, whatever happens, his status in Republican circles is likely to rise.

And in any event, for the next six weeks, Ohio remains at the center of the political universe. Whatever the extent of Romney's problems here -- and most politicos seem to agree they aren't as bad as the worst of the polls would suggest but aren't as good as some Republican critics of the polls believe -- the GOP has a lot of work to do here. And as the race unfolds, Portman's impressive performances on the stump remind voters that the Ohio senator would have been a very good running mate for Mitt Romney.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.