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Portman Prepares Romney for a More Hostile Obama in Debates

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman
Rob Portman, U.S. Senator, appears on the floor before the start of the second day of the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has played Barack Obama before. This time, in his role as Mitt Romney’s sparring partner for the presidential debates, he’s working up a character more hostile than four years ago.

Portman, who Romney passed up as his vice presidential running mate in choosing Representative Paul Ryan, said he expects a tougher Obama when the presidential candidates face off in October.

“I assume he’ll be more aggressive and more on the attack and, you know, it’ll be more personal,” he said yesterday at a Bloomberg/Washington Post event in Tampa, Florida. “The person who shows up this year at the three debates is going to be a different person than the one who showed up four years ago who was talking about how to bring the country together.”

Portman’s assessment is part of the Republican line of attack against Obama: that the incumbent is no longer the candidate of hope and change.

Romney is trying to narrow a likability gap evident in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week. The poll, taken Aug. 22-25, showed 27 percent of registered voters find Romney to be the more friendly or likable among the two candidates, compared with 61 percent for Obama.

This week’s Republican National Convention and the debates will help Romney close the gap, Portman said, after a “barrage of negative ads” that have driven down Romney’s ratings. Jobs also mean more than likability to most voters, Portman said.

“People will have learned between 2008 and now that liking somebody or celebrity status or, ‘wow, he’s cool’ doesn’t fix the economy,” he said. “Our argument this year is the far easier argument to make, which is that he didn’t fix it, we will.”

‘Acceptability Standard’

Portman said Romney needs to meet an “acceptability standard,” rather than getting people to “swoon” over him.

With an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent in Ohio -- below the national average of 8.3 percent -- Portman credited Governor John Kasich for helping to improve the economy there by balancing the state budget without raising taxes. He downplayed a resurgent automotive industry that followed the Obama administration’s decision to bail out General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

Portman, a former budget director in President George W. Bush’s administration, said Democrats and Republicans must consider eliminating tax preferences such as deductions for mortgages on second homes to simplify the U.S. tax code.

Romney has proposed a plan to lower U.S. tax rates, without indicating which tax preferences he would end to offset rate reductions.

“At the end of the day you’ve gotta deal with some of these tough issues,” Portman said.

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