CLEVELAND, Ohio — In a year when vulnerable Republican incumbents are dashing away from Donald Trump as fast as they can, on Monday Ohio Sen. Rob Portman did the opposite, inching closer to Trump with praise and an appearance at the Republican National Convention.
"I think he's got the right ideas on some of the major issues we talked about today," Portman said of Trump at a campaign event in Cleveland.
Portman ticked off an array of issues on which Trump, he said, was right: The presumptive GOP is "talking about the actual reform…the regulatory relief that is needed" to boost economic growth; Trump has "this commitment to rebuilding our military that I've talked about"; and even on trade, a key point of disagreement between the two, Portman insisted they agreed on the need to combat Chinese currency manipulation.
"I believe he'd be a much stronger president than Hillary Clinton," the senator added. And he also dismissed a question on whether Trump at the top of the ticket would be a drag on his reelection chances, telling reporters that Trump's primary wins showed he was "helpful in bringing new people to our party"
Portman endorsed Trump shortly after Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out of the presidential race, but has spoken critically of the presumptive GOP nominee.
And in what many saw as a reversal, Portman stopped by the convention center Monday morning to speak with media and greet delegates. The senator had long assumed to be skipping the event in favor of a "mini convention" of his own events, which included on Monday a Habitat for Humanity's home-building event.
A spokeswoman said the belief that the senator would skip the event wholly was a misconception, but even in interviews prior to the convention Portman had emphasized his distance from Trump.
"I've been vocal in opposition to some of the things he's said, but you just run your own race," Portman told Bloomberg Politics in April.
Public polls of the general election fight between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have shown a tight race, with Clinton typically leading by low single digits. Most polls of the Senate race, between Portman and Democrat Ted Strickland, show a similar outcome, with Portman up by a few points.
Trump's penchant for controversial comments and unorthodox policy proposals has Republicans fretting over the impact he could have on their chances of holding the Senate, which hinges on just a few seats. Vulnerable Republican incumbents like Portman may need to outrun Trump, particularly with independent voters and women, and they're working to show their distance from the presumptive GOP nominee by staying away from his convention and emphasizing local issues and their own independence.
And Portman was quick to distance himself from comments made by Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, who said at a breakfast briefing with press earlier that day that the senator was "very upset" with Kasich because the governor "is hurting him" with his opposition to Trump.
Manafort also said Kasich is "embarrassing his party in Ohio," because he's refusing to appear at or take part in the convention.
Portman said he wasn't upset and had never said such a thing when asked about it by press, and pushed back on Manafort's claim about Kasich.
"I didn't hear the remarks," he said, "but John is not an embarrassment, he's a very valuable member of the Republican team here and leading the effort in Ohio in terms of his approval numbers and he's doing a great job, he's being rewarded for that."