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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

Could scheme make Portman Ohio's governor?

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER
Cincinnati congressman Rob Portman seats to President Bush's left at a June 27, 2001, meeting in the Cabinet Room during a discussion on the Patient's Bill of Rights. Cincinnati congressman Rob Portman seats to President Bush's left at a June 27, 2001, meeting in the Cabinet Room during a discussion on the Patient's Bill of Rights.
SUSAN WALSH / AP Enlarge

COLUMBUS - With an important election now behind them, members of Ohio's political class have been hungry for something new to chew on.

Republican Congressman Rob Portman appears to be the menu's latest featured item.

As the Ohioan who carried the agenda of President Bush through the halls of Congress during the last four years and a top supporter of his re-election effort, politicos here say Mr. Portman, who represents a district in suburban Cincinnati, is on a fast track for promotion.

The Washington Post identified him as a replacement for White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. CNN said he is one to watch in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes. But Ohio insiders are buzzing about something closer to home.

With a looming vacancy in the state treasurer's office, a round of musical chairs may ensue. Outgoing state Treasurer Joe Deters, who is returning to Cincinnati to become Hamilton County prosecutor, is expected to be replaced by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Bradley, leaving vacant the second-highest post in state government.

Mr. Portman has been identified as one who might fill that No. 2 spot behind Mr. Taft, which would position him to take over as governor should Mr. Taft, who remains on good terms with President Bush, get tapped for one of the many vacant cabinet positions or an ambassadorship somewhere.

Like all really juicy speculation, it's quite plausible. The only problem is, Mr. Portman says he isn't interested.

"I hate to be boring because the rumors are always interesting, but this is not something that I cooked up and spread at all, and it's been kind of uncomfortable for me to see it out there so much, because I not only didn't start it, certainly have not fanned it, and discouraged it at every point," he said.

"I don't think Bob Taft is going anywhere. I think the governor's very happy finishing out his term, and so I'm not sure the lieutenant governor's job is one that would work out," Mr. Portman added.

"Stranger things have happened," said Orest Holubec, spokesman for Governor Taft, who was quick to add that "this didn't start in the governor's office, and it didn't start in Portman's office, and it didn't start at the White House."

"You know that would solve a lot of my problems if a scenario like that came together for 2006," said state GOP Chairman Robert Bennett, who has been trying to figure out how to stop a pending three-way Republican primary election contest between Attorney General James Petro, state Auditor Betty Montgomery, and Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

As chairman and unofficial keeper of party unity, Mr. Bennett has pledged a Herculean effort to avoid the three-way gubernatorial primary, but he said he is not the inventor of the Portman play.

"Everyone thinks that that's the silver bullet that's going to solve all the problems of 2006, the impending train wreck," the chairman said. "Everyone is thinking that, since we delivered Ohio, the governor can pick his choice of cabinet seats. But the only problem is, Governor Taft doesn't want to go to Washington. That's never held any magic for him."

The thinking has been that, with Mr. Portman in line to replace Mr. Taft, the three statewide GOP officeholders would abandon their campaigns for governor. None of them said they would.

"Unless Jim and Betty are going to roll [out of the 2006 race], and that would make it a Blackwell-Portman race, and that would be a battle royal. But I don't think Jim and Betty are going anyplace," Mr. Blackwell said. "I've had every scenario imaginable thought through. John Kasich. Mike DeWine. Rob Portman. That's where we are."

Ms. Montgomery said such political speculation harms the Ohio GOP because it paints a picture of arrogance inside a political party that dominates every branch of state government.

"I think it's not helpful. Personally, I think it's not appropriate to be talking about this gaming, these back room tactics," she said. "It doesn't look good. It makes the public feel, and properly so, disenfranchised, like some group of people can appoint a governor rather than have them elected. I realize that that's not a very friendly thing to say about the party, but I just think you just don't do that. It's just not appropriate,"

She said the Portman speculation is suspiciously close to a rumor she heard two months ago, that had her being tapped to replace Ms. Bradley.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Petro declined comment.

Dennis White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the Portman rumor is just the latest example of a power-drunk GOP.

"There's no question that the Ohio Republican Party and their officeholders are a very arrogant group of people here in Ohio," he said. "We've seen the shenanigans they've done with campaign finance, and some of the musical chairs they have played in offices before."

"I wouldn't put anything past the Republican Party in this state," Mr. White said. "They are in power, and they will do whatever it takes to keep in power."

Contact Fritz Wenzel at: fritz@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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