Mitt Romney’s Shadow Running Mate

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, call eligible voters from campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 19, 2012. Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

All eyes are on Paul Ryan for Thursday night’s vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky. But a friend pointed out to me recently that if you cast your eyes on some of Mitt Romney’s recent television ads, you won’t see Paul Ryan, or even hear his name mentioned. The guy you’ll see instead is Ohio Senator Rob Portman, invariably as a narrator praises the virtues of “common-sense conservatism.”

Here’s one such ad (“Who Will Raise Taxes?”) from last week:

And here’s another (“Already Has”). Same shot of Portman, same line about common-sense conservatism:

What’s going on here? It’s tempting to suspect that the Romney campaign is intentionally burying Ryan because he’s turned out to be a liability. The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber marshals the evidence here. Conspiracy theorists might suspect that Romney’s advisers, some of whom didn’t want Ryan on the ticket and preferred Portman or Tim Pawlenty, are passive-aggressively having their revenge.

My own hunch, though, is that Romney’s shadow running mate in these ads is really a reflection of how vitally important it is for Romney to win Ohio. It’s hard to find a realistic path to 270 electoral votes without it, and, as this New York Times/Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters revealed, Obama’s lead in Ohio grew significantly after Ryan’s selection. (One caveat: The poll was conducted before last Wednesday’s presidential debate.) That’s why both campaigns have been bus-touring their way across Ohio. So it probably only helps Romney’s cause to feature a popular local senator over his actual running mate.

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