Last updated: August 23. 2013 3:50PM - 206 Views

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Later this week, Sen. Rob Portman will be in New Hampshire. Weíre supposed to believe this trip is no big deal. After all, doesnít everyone go to New Hampshire?

Well, not exactly. As one Republican consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity said, there are two good reasons to visit New Hampshire: presidential politics and ski season. ďAnd itís not ski season,Ē he said with a laugh.

In early 2016, Iowa and New Hampshire will hold the first major presidential contests. You donít win either state by parachuting in a month before they hold their contests. It takes repeated trips to demonstrate that you are serious.

So on Friday, Portman, R-Ohio, and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire will speak at a $250 per-person fundraiser in Salem, which is not that far from the three cities that dominate New Hampshire politics: Nashua, Manchester and Concord.

By doing so, Portman is sending a signal to New Hampshire Republicans that he may be interested in running for president. After all, why not? As the same Republican consultant pointed out, there is no obvious front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be a favorite, although cynics say it would be better if he had a different last name. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum might run again, but his support is confined to social conservatives. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., may run as a tea party favorite, although there is little reason to believe he can expand that base.

In contrast to Paul, Portman has a strong rťsumť. He has served as a member of the Senate and House. He was U.S. trade representative and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney considered him last year as his vice presidential running mate. He can raise gobs of campaign money.

He also has crafted a record on taxes, budgets and guns that appeals to conservatives. He has a ready-made message of simplifying the tax code, an issue that has greater resonance in the wake of revelations that the Internal Revenue Service has targeted conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status.

Yes, itís true he supports same-sex marriage, which will not go over well with some social conservatives. But he has a pretty good reason: He changed his mind after his son Will told him he is gay.

Of course, trying to get Portmanís aides to fess up and admit he is thinking about the presidency is a challenge for any reporter. Portmanís aides act shocked ó shocked! ó that anyone would even suggest the Ohio Republican engages in politics.

And he has a built-in excuse for his trip next weekend: He is speaking on a panel at Dartmouth College as his class of 1978 celebrates its 35th reunion. And because his daughter, Sally, plans to attend Dartmouth next year, Portman has a convenient explanation any time he visits New Hampshire.

But a check of a map shows that Salem is not exactly just around the block from Dartmouth, which is located in Hanover. Salem is near the Massachusetts state line, while Hanover is way up to the north on the Vermont state border.

When asked about this tour of New Hampshire, Portman answered: ďItís always great to get back to Hanover. I go up there pretty much every year to teach a class and meet with students. And this year itís my reunion.

ďAs far as 2016 goes, thatís a long way away. I am focused on the very real problems our state and our country face right now and what we can do as a country to get this economy moving again in a way thatíll help the 20 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed to get good jobs, how we can instill some fiscal discipline in Washington and how we can work together to meet the challenges we face.Ē

Not exactly a denial.

Jack Torry, jtorry@dispatch.com, is chief of the Dispatch Washington bureau.

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