"I've got a feeling that Pennsylvania is going to be in the red column this year, and it's going to be because in 2008, we made a mistake," Portman said after a Lancaster County party official introduced him as a potential vice president. "America gave the ball to Barack Obama because he promised he was going to turn things around, he promised he was going to bring people together to solve big problems - and he fumbled the ball."
It was Portman's second campaign trip to Pennsylvania in eight days. He has stumped and raised money for Romney all over Ohio, as well as in North Carolina and New Hampshire.
He is one of the most widely traveled of those under consideration for the vice presidential spot, a group including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and New Jersey Gov. Christie.
"Romney has plenty of choices, a lot of people out there who can do the job," Portman said afterward when a gaggle of reporters asked the inevitable questions. Besides, he added, "ultimately, people are voting for the president and not the V.P."
A former House member and a high-ranking official in both Bush administrations, Portman has a reputation as a conciliatory conservative. One of his strengths - time spent as budget director under President George W. Bush - is also a potential weakness, considering that Obama is blaming the fiscal policies of that administration for the country's economic woes.
"I'm proud of my record there," Portman said in an interview with The Inquirer. When he left the Office of Management and Budget in 2007, after 14 months, he said, "we actually had a deficit that was one-sixth of today's deficit - still too big at $161 billion, but just minuscule compared to today. So if the Democrats want to talk about that, it could be kind of a fun conversation."
Obama and the Democrats contend that 2001 and 2003 tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy, coupled with two wars and a new Medicare prescription-drug benefit that exploded government spending, have caused the huge budget deficit.
Portman cited a recent Congressional Budget Office report fixing on the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year just 4 percent of the blame for the flip from a $5 trillion surplus to a $6.2 trillion deficit.
And that doesn't count any economic growth that may have been attributable to the tax cuts, which helped millions of people who own small businesses, Portman said.
There's no arguing with current reality, he said, with a decline in the rate of economic growth and persistent unemployment.
He and the Republicans are betting that voters don't want to re-litigate the Bush years.
"Ultimately these undecided voters are much more focused on the future than the past. They want to know what you're going to do for them," Portman said. "I think Mitt Romney's opportunity in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is to say, in the most clear terms possible, 'Look, this guy, President Obama, had his chance. He made a lot of promises, put in place a lot of aggressive policies. They haven't worked. . . . Let's try something new.' "
Before the rally, the Obama campaign held a protest featuring Brian Frailey, 45, owner of DogStar Books in Lancaster, which he opened in 2006. He said that a steady recovery under Obama, as well as the payroll-tax cut, had helped save his business because consumers have had more to spend.
"My customers - middle-class residents of Lancaster - are getting back to work," Frailey said in a statement.
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.