Suzanne Nielsen still remembers a strange conversation she had more than 40 years ago at her children's elementary school in Cincinnati...

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WASHINGTON — Suzanne Nielsen still remembers a strange conversation she had more than 40 years ago at her children’s elementary school in Cincinnati.

Nielsen was talking with a secretary when the principal popped out of his office and asked her if she knew a boy named Rob Portman. Nielsen knew him, but not well.

“Mark my words,” the principal told her. “Someday he’s going to be president of the United States.”

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Nielsen pointed out that Portman was only 6 or 7. The principal, undaunted, repeated his prediction and walked back into his office.

“And that was the end of the conversation,” she says. But not the end of the story.

Several years ago, Nielsen ran into Portman, who by then was a U.S. congressman, and told him about the conversation. Portman got a kick out of it — so much so that when he learned a story was being written about him, he twice suggested the reporter track down Nielsen.

If there is a message here, it isn’t necessarily that Rob Portman is planning to run for president any time soon. It’s that Portman, a former international trade lawyer whom President Bush has nominated to become the next U.S. trade representative, is no longer shy about advertising that people see that potential in him.

This is a change for the lanky, graying, 49-year-old congressman from suburban Cincinnati who had quietly become one of the most influential Republicans in Congress by the time Bush asked him to join his Cabinet.

Four years ago, when he was being touted as a rising Republican star, Portman seemed uncomfortable talking about his ambitions. But as he began his seventh term in Congress this year, Portman admitted that he sometimes feels restless.

He says he’d like to run for the Senate, and he doesn’t dismiss the possibility of running someday for the White House. “The question, you know, is getting there,” he says. “For me, that would mean probably running for Senate or governor and being successful which is a very uncertain proposition.”

Big ambitions

Such talk may seem a bit presumptuous for a politician who’s barely known to voters outside his southwest Ohio district. But the notion that Portman might have big ambitions, beyond even the Cabinet-level post that he has just been tapped for, is hardly absurd to people who follow politics.

In Washington, D.C., visitors to Portman’s congressional office quickly glimpse his connections. In the reception area are framed photos of him with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Presidents Bush, Clinton and Ford.

Along another wall hang photos of White House ceremonies where bills Portman sponsored were signed into law. Among them: an overhaul of the Internal Revenue Service, a reform of pension law, the creation of an underground-railroad museum in Cincinnati and an anti-drug program.

The pictures make two points about Portman’s standing in D.C. First, he has unusually close ties to the Bush crowd. Second, he has a knack for turning his ideas into law. Both points are central to understanding how Portman became chairman of the House Republican leadership.

As part of that job, Portman runs meetings of GOP leaders, monitors the mood of rank-and-file Republicans on major bills and serves as liaison between House Republican leaders and the White House.

The liaison role has been a natural for Portman because he worked in the White House under the first President Bush with many of the top aides who work there now for Bush’s son.

Portman began his White House tenure as an associate counsel, then became director of the legislative-affairs office, which handles relations with Congress.

By the time Portman left the first Bush White House in 1991, “he was revered,” says Joshua Bolten, who replaced Portman and is budget director for the current President Bush.

One sign of Portman’s standing was that he was offered the post of staff secretary to the president, one of the most coveted jobs in the West Wing.

“There’s not a piece of paper that goes to or from the president that doesn’t go through the hands of the staff secretary,” says White House chief of staff Andy Card, who also worked for the elder Bush.

Portman, who calls his White House stint his best job ever, declined the promotion for several reasons: His mother in Cincinnati was ill with cancer; he had a young son he rarely saw because of his long work hours; and he needed to return home if he wanted to build a political base so he could run for office.

Card says he has little doubt Portman will rise further in politics. “I think there’s still plenty of mountain ahead for him to climb and he’s going to keep climbing.”

Portman doesn’t fit the stereotype of a back-slapping, cigar-chomping party insider who lives and breathes backroom politics. A health-conscious athlete and outdoorsman, he is better known for spending his spare evening hours working out in the House gym and practicing “rolls” on his kayak in the House pool than he is for hobnobbing at parties.

By day, he has been more famous for pestering colleagues to support the latest version of some pension-reform bill he has co-written with Maryland Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin, a frequent collaborator of his, than for hitting the golf course.

“He’s a real policy wonk at heart,” Bolten says.

Portman, whose wife and three children live in the Cincinnati suburb of Terrace Park, has talked often over the years about his efforts to balance career and family.

One reason he hasn’t sought a top elected House leadership spot, he says, is that he fears such a job would force him to spend most weekends flying around the country to campaign for other GOP lawmakers.

Not an ideologue

People who have worked with Portman say that he can be dogged when he’s pushing issues he cares about, but he doesn’t come across as hot-tempered or strongly ideological.

“Extremes are not comfortable for him,” says former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who has known Portman since the late ’70s. “He has this equanimity, a sense of balance I guess I would call it.”

During a recent swing around southwest Ohio, Portman pleases Republican audiences with a stout defense of Bush’s agenda while appearing open-minded in less political settings.

At a Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce lunch, Portman delivers yet another update on what’s happening in Congress. As a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — which handles taxes, trade, health care and Social Security — he has focused heavily on economic issues in Congress. And though his speech is somewhat dry, he keeps the attention of most of the business types in the room.

Surprisingly, at one point he tells his audience that he doesn’t favor cutting Social Security benefits even though Bush has suggested they will need some adjustments. Then he says he’s not even sure Bush’s attempt to overhaul Social Security will succeed.

“We’re going to go at that as hard as we can. Whether it gets done or not, I don’t know,” he says.

When someone in the audience asks whether government health-care programs aren’t in more trouble than Social Security, Portman answers candidly.

“They’re probably more troublesome in a way,” he says. But he predicts that Congress won’t do much on health care this year because of the disappointing reaction Republicans have gotten to the recent law adding prescription-drug coverage to Medicare.

“We got kind of burned on Medicare,” he says. “I think, frankly — I wish I could say this was off the record — I think this is an issue that members aren’t going to want to touch for a while.”

In his private life, some of Portman’s best friends have been Democrats. He was best man, for example, at the wedding of Dan Reicher, a longtime environmentalist who was assistant secretary for energy in the Clinton administration and an adviser to Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Reicher and Portman have taken numerous kayaking trips — including one in China and another during their college years at Dartmouth, when they were part of a small group believed to be the first ever to kayak the entire 2,000-mile Rio Grande.

Portman’s wife, Jane, who works part time as a consultant at a marketing think tank in Cincinnati, is a former Democrat. While she and Portman were dating, she worked for then-Rep. Tom Daschle, who later became the Senate Democratic leader and a target of frequent GOP attacks.

Jane Portman says she didn’t find it too hard to switch parties when she married because she had grown up in North Carolina, where most Democrats were moderate to conservative.

“It wasn’t that much territory to leap,” she says. “We struck a couple of deals. I said, ‘Well, I’ll take your name, but we’re going to give my maiden name as a middle name to all the children.’ … And I said, ‘I’ll cross over and call myself a Republican, but you’ve got to come on board as a Methodist’ (Portman was a Presbyterian). … We felt that we wanted to be on the same team and that was a way to do it. We didn’t feel that we were sacrificing huge parts of who we were.”

Portman, who maintained he couldn’t imagine taking a job with the Bush administration because “it just doesn’t work for my family,” said in mid-March that he changed his mind and agreed to become the nation’s chief trade negotiator for several reasons.

Ready for change

The main one, he said, was that he came to realize that after 12 years in Congress — the longest he’s stayed in any job — he was “ready for a change.”

“Life is short,” he said, adding that he realized the trade job “is right down my alley.”

The new post, which would make him responsible for negotiating trade agreements with other nations and reducing barriers to the sale of U.S. goods abroad, is probably “the best fit” for him, he said, of any Cabinet-level job because of his background as a trade lawyer. His nomination is subject to Senate confirmation.

Portman has often said in the past that his favorite part of his job in Congress is not the politics but the nuts and bolts of changing government policies.

Asked if the increasing partisanship in Congress recently was a factor in his decision, he said: “The polarization does get to me. It was an element, yes.”

Another factor, he said, was that Bush approached him personally. “It’s just very hard to say no to the president,” he said.

Portman also noted that Ohio’s two Senate seats could be occupied by Republicans for years.

“He needs a break,” said Curt Steiner, a former GOP consultant who managed Portman’s first congressional campaign. “In order to take it to the next level there needs to be an opening and right now there isn’t. … But he’s patient. He’s young.”

Portman said last week that he sees no reason why joining the Bush administration should prevent him from seeking higher office — in the Senate, or the White House.

“I don’t think it hurts,” he said.