Rob Portman’s home sits on a forested lot in Terrace Park, just far enough away from the main drag of U.S. 50 to feel secluded. An expansive kitchen has room for a dinner table and gates to keep the family dogs, Duke and Chuck, behind an island. The kitchen opens to a family room flooded with natural light from skylights cut into a cathedral ceiling. Sliding glass doors invite the eye toward a handsome deck overlooking full, green trees.

The house is just a stone’s throw away from the Loveland Bike Trail that Portman loves to use with his wife, Jane, and a short drive to the Little Miami River where Portman enjoys kayaking, another one of his outdoor passions.

All in all, it’s a pretty nice place to come home to, except for the fact that Portman’s bucolic retreat is more like a part-time vacation home than a full-time residence thanks to the beast that is the modern campaign.

“I got in a little after midnight from Cleveland after a fundraiser and a political event,” Portman explains at the beginning of a family-room interview on a sunny summer morning. “And I chose to come home to see my kids rather than spend the night in Cleveland. Yesterday, I was in Columbus and Cleveland. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Columbus, Belmont County and spending the night in Columbiana County. Then, I’ll be in Summit County, then Cleveland and will drive back home again.”

So goes the life of the presumptive Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by George Voinovich, who is retiring at the end of his term. Portman has no major Republican opposition but is sure to face a heavy hitter in the general election in November 2010, with Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner leading a strong field of Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination.

You’ll be seeing a lot more of Portman on the coffee-and-donut circuit in the coming months, but Cincy wanted to give its readers a head start on learning about Portman, his family, his personality and personal interests, and his direction for Ohio. If he wins, he will be Cincinnati’s only member in the U.S. Senate, making this one of the city’s most important races in decades.

Democrats in Ohio enjoyed a resurgence in recent elections, capturing the governor’s office, virtually every other statewide office, and a U.S. Senate seat when Sen. Sherrod Brown defeated Mike DeWine. President Obama carried the state for Democrats for the first time since 1996.

And, although Portman started this campaign with plenty of name recognition in Greater Cincinnati and in Washington’s political circles, the 54-year-old former congressman knows winning the Senate seat in this political climate means hitting the road. A lot.

“It’s still early, but I’m already busy. You can do it 24-7, but I’m trying to keep a balance between the family and the campaign and work,” which for Portman is working at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP.

Robert Jones Portman was born in Cincinnati on Dec. 19, 1955, into a family that didn’t talk politics around the dinner table. But Portman likes to tell the story of riding next to his mom as an 8-year-old on a bumpy road and saying, “I want to be the guy who fixes these potholes.”

At 13, Portman began working for Portman Equipment Co., his dad’s forklift business, cleaning the shop, prepping lift trucks for painting, landscaping, building a paint booth and, as he approached college, spending one summer in sales visiting customers. The business was sold recently to Equipment Depot, a national chain.

When he was young, Portman also worked at the Golden Lamb, a restaurant and inn in Lebanon owned and operated by his family for years.

Other summer and odd jobs included working for Natorp’s landscaping as a laborer and, in college, working on two cattle ranches as a ranch hand cutting hay, repairing fences and wrangling steer.

Portman graduated from Cincinnati Country Day High School and received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Dartmouth College and, in 1984, his law degree from the University of Michigan.

The road to a Senate run has weaved into Washington and home again several times, beginning in 1984, when Portman began a two-year stint as an associate at the Patton Boggs law firm in Washington, where he specialized in international trade law.

He came home for three years to work as an associate and, later, a partner at Graydon Head & Ritchey, before he was tapped by President George H.W. Bush to be associate counsel in 1989. Portman worked for Bush as deputy assistant and director in the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs.

Portman stepped into the limelight in 1993 when Rep. Bill Gradison abruptly resigned his congressional seat. Portman bested nine opponents in a wide-open special election and went on to win six full terms by margins of 72 percent or more.

He rose through the ranks in Congress, serving in House leadership and as the liaison between House leadership and the White House. Portman burnished his international trade skills on the trade subcommittee, as well as serving on the House Ways and Means Committee and vice chairman of the Budget Committee.

In 2005, Portman left Congress to become President George W. Bush’s U.S. trade representative. A year later, Bush appointed him director of the office of management and budget, a post he held until resigning about a year later.

In 2007, Portman came back home to work for Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.

Normal workdays, nights at home and weekends on the bike path, in the river or turkey hunting were his at last, but for Portman, the siren song of politics played again in January when Voinovich announced he was retiring.

Portman was interested in succeeding the Cleveland Republican, so he sat down with Jane and their children. “When I first heard that George Voinovich wasn’t going to run, we had a family meeting and talked to everybody. I actually wasn’t sure how they would react or how Jane would react, and they were all supportive, which was really important. I wouldn’t have done it had they not been supportive. It can’t work without it,” Portman emphasizes.

Asked about her reaction, Jane says, “It feels like the right time. It feels like an important thing to do. Rob would do such a great job as a senator. We’re all willing to make that sacrifice.”

Jane says elected office in Washington is actually easier to manage in terms of commuting and family life than a stint on the president’s staff.

“When you were in the House, the commute thing worked OK. The challenging part was when Rob was in cabinet jobs. Those really are six- and seven-day-a-week jobs. That was a little bit trickier,” she says.

Jane Portman is no stranger to business and civic engagement, either. Her professional résumé includes 12 years as a marketing consultant for Trained Brain and Richard Saunders International, where she developed new product ideas and marketing strategies for Fortune 500 companies. Jane also served two stints as director of communications at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

In addition, she serves on the board of trustees at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she also chairs the Pastoral Care Committee and serves as a member of the Planning and Marketing Committee. She’s a Meals on Wheels driver and an elementary school tutor with Cincinnati Public Schools.

Although family rituals are hard to maintain, the Portmans still manage to spend most Sunday nights having dinner with Rob’s dad, Bill, 87. The rest is catch as catch can. Portman and his son Jed, 19, went on two turkey hunts in Brown County over the summer. He participated in PaddleFest, the Ohio River kayak and canoe extravaganza held each June, and canoes with his other son, Will, 18, and daughter, Sally, 14.

“I’m keeping up with that (outdoor exercise) better than I had thought because it’s a stress relief,” Portman says.

Jane says early Congressional runs were fairly easy to manage when the children were toddlers who came along for the ride.

Now? “We’re letting the kids decide the level of involvement they want to have in this campaign,” Jane explains. “So far, they’ve chosen to participate, and they’re very supportive of the effort. But it’s really different than the first time their father ran for office when they were 3 and 2, and we could fling them in the back of the car and say, ‘You’re coming with us.’ So, we’re trying to respect their ages.”

Making their family work took some compromising from the earliest days for Rob and Jane.

“I married a Democrat,” Rob plainly states. In fact, Jane grew up as a self-described conservative Democrat in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was an aide to Tom Daschle when he was a Democratic congressman from North Dakota when Rob and Jane met.

The two met on a blind date set up by Jane’s aunt and Rob’s mother. They bonded over their sense of adventure: Jane had hiked through the Himalayas, and Rob was planning a canoeing trip down the Yangtze River in China.

“We had a nice time, but as we always say, I thought Rob talked too much, and he thought I didn’t have enough to say,” Jane says as the couple grins at each other. “Nonetheless, we stayed in touch.”

They clicked in subsequent dates, and they were off. “When we met, what we enjoyed about getting to know each other was our mutual interest in public policy, service and the government. I’m not sure how anybody knows how their life is going to unfold, but it’s been great.”

Jane had been active in politics for a long while. “I’ve been working in political campaigns since I was 12, so I think we share that interest. I worked for Lawrence Davis when he ran for the statehouse in North Carolina in 1972,” Jane says.

She eventually became a registered Republican, a move she says was not a great leap because she had always been conservative. In turn, Portman converted to her denomination, Methodist, from the Presbyterian faith by which he was raised. “That was part of the bargain,” he explains.

Portman says it’s impossible for him to leave work at the office, and his family is part of his circle of advisers. “I wish I could leave work at work, but it’s on my mind all the time. And Jane is a great sounding board, as are my kids. Will is editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I run stuff by Jane; I run stuff by the kids.”

Jane adds: “It’s pretty all-consuming. I’ve been a registered Republican a long time. I would say like all couples there are points on which we agree and disagree. We have great
conversations.”

“But you give me a
perspective,” Portman responds. “It’s easy to get just into the political thing too heavily and lose your perspective. When I first ran for office, I didn’t consider myself so much political as much as somebody who looks for the common sense solution … And Jane helps me a lot. She has a lot of friends with a lot of different perspectives, some of whom she agrees with and some of whom she doesn’t. Jane is a conduit for opinions.”

Portman is invariably identified as a conservative who also strives to work with Democrats to advance legislation. It’s a philosophy he learned through mentors in Washington, beginning with Sen. Alan Simpson, whom he worked with while in D.C. between college and law school.

“He was an inspiration to me. The other one was George H.W. Bush, a really decent, honorable guy,” he says. “When people ask me where I fit ideologically, I view myself as a commonsense fiscal conservative. I try to think about it like normal people think about it, including their household budget,” he says.

While other House Republican leaders relished in partisan politics and defeating political foes, Portman co-sponsored legislation with Democrats where common ground could be found.

As national GOP leaders grapple publicly with their party’s future — ideological orthodoxy versus a broader coalition — Portman resides in the big-tent camp. “I fall on the side of those who say, ‘Look, you can’t have a 100 percent purity test for every Republican. Otherwise, you’re going to shrink and you won’t be relevant.”