Rob Portman's Side Convention

Rob Portman's Side Convention
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File
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CLEVELAND – Ohio Sen. Rob Portman isn’t skipping the Republican convention here this week, where Donald Trump will become his party’s nominee for president, but he isn’t exactly participating either.

Portman has filled his schedule with events around Cleveland to highlight his own campaign, including several charity events and a reception to thank hundreds of volunteers, with some time on the actual convention floor squeezed in where it fits. It’s an effort by the Portman campaign to show he’s focusing on Ohioans while trying to avoid any potential backlash from Trump’s official nomination – something his opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, has tried repeatedly to saddle Portman with.   

Portman’s effort got thrown for a loop almost immediately Monday morning when Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, slammed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for refusing to participate in the convention, calling him an “embarrassment” and dragging Portman into the mix.

“He’s very upset with John Kasich,” Manafort said of Portman, according to the New York Times. “Because John Kasich is hurting him.”

The senator seemed unaware he’d become part of the Trump/Kasich feud when asked about it Monday afternoon and basically rolled his eyes when asked if he was frustrated.

“No. No. No,” he responded a few minutes after he had praised Kasich as “a valuable member of the Republican team here” who’s doing a “great job” running the state. Portman then pivoted to the reason he was meeting with volunteers – to thank them and tout his campaign’s massive ground operation.

“I’m focused on running our own campaign, which is, from the grassroots perspective, unprecedented in Ohio and unique in the country, and then focusing on these issues we talked about today,” he said.

Earlier that afternoon, Portman led a session with his wife, campaign manager Corry Bliss and about 30 “VIP” volunteers to explain the campaign strategy and how their grassroots effort was paying off. Bliss went through details of the campaign to highlight the field effort. As an example, he showed off the 33,000 voters that consider keeping Lake Erie clean as their top campaign issue, and said the campaign has contacted 31,000 of them, moving Portman’s poll numbers from a three-point deficit among those voters to a 6.5-point advantage.

Afterwards, the campaign hosted a larger session to thank several hundred volunteers from around the state, which Portman referred to as a “mini convention”; featured were placards from different cities to mimic the state placards that adorn the national convention floor.

Along with Portman and his wife – who are celebrating their 30th anniversary this week – the campaign had former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst there to stump for the incumbent. Ernst touted Portman’s work ethic in the Senate this year, while Gingrich praised his bipartisan nature, and took a shot at Strickland, who served in the House while Gingrich was speaker, calling him “one of those very rare people who has in a long career managed to learn nothing.”

Portman himself, fielding a wide range of questions from reporters after the event, continued to tout his ground game, suggesting that while the benefit might not be reflected in the polls, which show an extremely close race, it would prove to be the difference on Election Day. Even with the controversy between Trump and Kasich in full swing Monday afternoon, the Ohio senator didn’t shy away from backing the presidential ticket. He reiterated his support for Trump and pointed out some stances they share, including opposition to China’s unfair trade practices, economic growth, and a strong military.

“On those issues, some big issues, I believe he’d be a much stronger president than Hillary Clinton, and that’s the choice,” Portman said.

Still, Portman was hardly a major presence at the convention. Though he left his campaign event to go to the convention floor – which was erupting in anti-Trump turmoil – he didn’t have a speaking role and it wasn’t clear how often he would return.

Instead, his other events have been charity-focused. He partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build and refurbish several houses in a downtrodden Cleveland neighborhood Monday morning, and is doing an event on the Cuyahoga River Tuesday afternoon with an organization that helps disabled veterans learn adaptive paddle systems for kayaking. He’ll even hop in a kayak for a friendly race with one of the veterans.

While Portman is doing these unique campaign events, Strickland and Ohio Democrats have crashed the Republican’s nominating party to heckle Portman and hammer the narrative that he’s inextricably tied to Trump.  The challenger held a labor event Sunday and had a press availability with Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz Monday. The Ohio Democratic Party is also hosting fundraisers and discussion panels throughout the week.

Strickland explicitly used Kasich’s refusal to back Trump and participate in the convention to knock Portman – pointing out that along with Kasich, both George H.W. and George W. Bush and 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney weren’t in town to support the party nominee either.

“That says Mr. Portman does not have the courage that John Kasich has,” Strickland told reporters, according to The Hill. “I think Sen. Portman is afraid of alienating Donald Trump’s right flank and supporters from the right. I hope he’s embarrassed by the positions that Donald Trump has taken on a lot of issues, so I think he finds himself between a rock and a hard place.”

Portman, however, pushed back on that narrative. He said the Habitat for Humanity event was scheduled more than a year ago, and– acknowledging his defensive tone – said that he was headed to the convention floor Monday afternoon. He also argued Trump could help his Senate campaign, pointing out the record turnout in the Ohio primary – which Kasich won– and the fact that Portman defeated his opponent with more than 80 percent of the vote.

“So that would indicate that he could be very helpful because he’s bringing new people to the party,” he said. “But we’ll see. I think it’s a more unpredictable year than past years and that’s why we’re doing our own thing."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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