- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rob Portman is sitting in a downtown D.C. law firm’s glass-enclosed conference room, in the power position: legs crossed, leaning back in his chair, wearing an expensive suit.

He sports a small, round, green button on his lapel that says in white numbers, “2016.”

Could it be? The former congressman, then White House trade representative and budget director, now possible Republican vice presidential nominee is plotting a long-term strategy for his own national bid? It would allow him to run for governor of Ohio in 2010, serve six years and run in the middle of his second term.

The button, however, is a big tease. It’s for the National Park Service’s centennial celebration.

Mr. Portman, 52, is a big conservationist and friend of national parks, he says, and had been meeting earlier with a National Park Service official.

Nonetheless, Mr. Portman says in an interview, he does not want to be picked as Sen. John McCain‘s running mate in the presidential race, but he does want to run for governor of Ohio in 2010. Still, Mr. Portman’s name is still being mentioned as one of the top possibilities to round out the McCain ticket.

Advocates say he would deliver his home state, a key election battleground, and would be a camera-friendly, youthful and solidly conservative with polished credentials in both domestic and foreign policy.

But the Michigan Law School graduate diplomatically indicates that he has told the McCain campaign he’s got no mojo for the task.

“I have indicated that I’m happy, and I really am. It’s good to be home. My family is not eager for me to jump back into something like that right now, nor am I,” he said.

Politician that he is, however, Mr. Portman leaves the door open: “It’d be a great honor if asked, and I’d have to cross that bridge if it came.”

Since he left the White House Office of Management and Budget one year ago, Mr. Portman has been back in Washington only about once a month, for two days at a time.

Mr. Portman now works out of the Cincinnati office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, a global law firm based in the U.S. His former chief of staff at OMB, Rob Lehman, is a principal in SSD’s Washington office. The setup allows Mr. Portman to work from his home state but remain involved in both D.C. politics and international trade issues.

“I’m really happy to be … out of the Washington scene for a while,” he says, leaning back inside the SSD conference room.

“I got discouraged at OMB because partisanship seemed to reign over results.”

He pauses, and clarifies. “That’s reign. R-e-i-g-n. Not rain.” He smiles.

Once Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, less than six months after he took over at OMB, the process of passing the budget became a political slog.

“The partisan gridlock meant that the OMB director basically was reduced to complaining about Congress not getting their bills done,” he says. “It was hard to justify the sacrifice on the family side when I couldn’t see that we were making much of a difference.”

Since leaving Washington, he says he has, in fact, spent more time with his wife, Jane, and their children, Jed, 18; Will, 16; and Sally, 13. He has done some surrogate work for the McCain campaign. In fact, the day after his interview, the campaign worked around his nonnegotiable condition - watching Jed’s rowing competition in Ohio - to set up an afternoon conference call with reporters.

On the call, Mr. Portman decried the economic and tax plans of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. He’s been traveling domestically and internationally, speaking on trade and taxes, but also giving a large number of speeches in Ohio - 35.

He taught a three-hour seminar at Ohio State University in the spring on budgeting, and is going to teach another course in the fall. And he’s set up a political action committee, “Ohio’s Future,” which has raised $300,000 so far.

The PAC allows him to travel, but also lays the groundwork for a run at the governor’s mansion, which would likely kick off in a little more than a year from now.

“I’d like to do that,” he says of challenging the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Ted Strickland.

The possibility of running for the U.S. Senate also looms if Republican incumbent Sen. George V. Voinovich retires rather than seek re-election in 2010.

But in the meantime, getting away from the frenzy of Washington politics has meant Mr. Portman’s had time to do something many inside the Beltway never do: read fiction.

He’s been reading through novelist Cormac McCarthy’s books.

“I’ve read some junky books for the first time in years,” he said.

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