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Portman Fine-Tunes Message in Key Senate Race

Portman Fine-Tunes Message in Key Senate Race

By Erin McPike - August 17, 2010


After nearly half a dozen Republican Senate recruits have fallen to more conservative challengers or Tea Party-driven candidates in primaries this year, at least one GOP candidate with deep experience in Washington has so far defied the anti-establishment trend.

Former Rep. Rob Portman, the Republican in Ohio's open Senate race, has endured a spate of attacks from Democrats who refer to him as "the architect of President Bush's economic agenda," but polling in the state has been trending slowly in his direction nevertheless.

"People want to see results, not partisan attacks," he explained in a recent interview, adding that his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, has not articulated a vision and instead has a campaign that is motivated mostly by attacks on him.

Democratic sources in the state said that Fisher's pathway to victory relies on going negative early by tying Portman to Bush and attacking his record on trade. At the same time, other Democratic sources said they were surprised last month to see that Portman's campaign debuted an attack more than three months before the general election.

Otherwise, Portman hasn't done much partisan bomb-throwing. While many Republicans rip into the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership, Portman put it more simply to a small audience last week: "There's something going on this year. Some of it is because of the other side."

Portman hasn't had to expend much energy on the attack yet, in part because Fisher has had a number of struggles this year with poor fundraising and staff turnover. In addition, Fisher did not address a gathering of the Ohio Coal Association in Columbus last week and cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for his absence. Portman gave remarks and took questions from members, and both Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and his Republican opponent, John Kasich, also appeared before the organization.

As Fisher has shed staff and hired a new team, including a new campaign manager, press secretary and two new fundraisers, Portman's campaign has functioned with presidential campaign precision. Top Portman staffers said they are simply running the campaign they have to in order to win a close election in a swing state, and Portman said he's telling his staff to run as if he's 10 points behind in the polls. Still, Democrats in the state have begun to scoff that Portman is auditioning.

Portman's name surfaced in the summer of 2008 as a potential running mate pick for Arizona Sen. John McCain shortly after McCain secured the GOP presidential nomination. He faded from the mix due to his Bush administration jobs, which strategists deemed too damaging in that cycle.

One top Democratic operative with a hand in the race suggested that for Portman, the race is not just about winning a Senate seat, but is more about showing the GOP grasstops that he ran the best campaign of the election cycle. And Republican operatives tied to several different potential GOP presidential hopefuls already consider Portman a likely contender for the running mate slot should he prevail this November.

Democrats are also looking toward the presidential election in the Buckeye State. "This is about 2012 for them," Portman told the Ohio Coal Association members. He said President Obama needs the state to win re-election, because he believes Obama is unlikely to win states like Indiana or North Carolina again.

And that's the same thing the Ohio Democratic Party has said throughout this midterm cycle. ODP executive director Doug Kelly refers to the Buckeye State as the firewall for Obama - that he can lose some of the more surprising states he won in 2008 so long as he posts a victory in Ohio two years from now. And to Kelly, that means securing a pair of difficult statewide victories this year.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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