William Hershey

COLUMBUS: Ohio Republicans have come down with vice presidential fever, excited by the real possibility that Mitt Romney will pick U.S. Sen. Rob Portman as his vice presidential running mate.

There hasn’t been such an outbreak in Ohio since 1988 when the Democrats were stricken. They hoped that Michael Dukakis would pick U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the former astronaut and Marine fighter pilot hero of two wars, as his running mate.

Things didn’t turn out well for the Democrats in Ohio or across the country.

Dukakis instead picked U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in an ill-fated effort to rebuild the Boston-Austin connection that propelled John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas into the White House in 1960.

Republican George H.W. Bush won the 1988 election, with little-known and lightly regarded running mate U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana in the VP spot. If nothing else, Quayle proved that a running mate often makes little difference.

The last time there actually was an Ohioan in the No. 2 spot, he did make a difference, judging by the election’s outcome. In 1944, Republican Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, picked Ohio Gov. John Bricker as his vice presidential running mate.

Dewey, an East Coast moderate who probably would be denied membership in today’s GOP, needed to buck up his support with conservatives. He also wanted to win Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

Dewey and Bricker carried the state, barely.

They got 50.18 percent of the vote to 49.82 percent for Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt and his running mate Harry S. Truman, the closest winning margin for either ticket in any state in 1944.

It was in a losing cause.

FDR won a fourth term relatively easily, getting 53.4 percent of the popular vote nationally and carrying 36 states.

The Dewey-Bricker win in Ohio may have been a squeaker, but it was the only time FDR lost Ohio. He won with 50 percent of the vote in 1932, nearly 58 percent in 1936 and 52 percent in 1940.

It’s not hard to conclude that Bricker made a difference.

One question for Romney and the Republicans this year is whether Portman could help the ticket in the same way Bricker did in 1944.

I interviewed Bricker once and have spoken with Portman numerous times since he first won election to the U.S. House in a special election in 1993.

Rob Portman is no John Bricker.

That doesn’t mean that Portman wouldn’t strengthen the GOP ticket or that he wouldn’t make a good vice president or even president, if circumstances required.

His 12 years in the U.S. House and service as U.S. trade representative and budget director for President George W. Bush should convince voters that he would be ready to step into the Oval Office if necessary.

Romney, like Dewey in 1944, needs help convincing tea party activists and other conservatives that he’s no closet Democrat, socialist or something even worse.

Portman could help, but not as much as new right-wing heroes such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Anyway, Republicans’ overall disdain for Democratic President Barack Obama, bordering on contempt and disrespect, will make Romney look better and better to conservatives as November nears.

The real difference between Bricker and Portman is in proven statewide voter appeal, the kind that could add a percentage point or so of support in a state that both sides need to win.

By 1944, Bricker had it. Portman’s off to a good start, but he’s still a work in progress.

By 1944, Bricker had been on the statewide ballot seven times. He lost a 1928 race to be GOP candidate for attorney general and then was elected attorney general twice, in 1932 and 1934.

Bricker lost his first run for governor in 1936 but then became the first Republican governor to win three consecutive terms, with victories in 1938, 1940 and 1942. In those days governors served two-year terms.

If there was such a thing as a household name in Ohio politics in the 1940s, it was Bricker, originally from a farm near Mount Sterling in Madison County in central Ohio.

Even after the 1944 loss, Bricker, who died in 1986 at 92, wasn’t done. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946 and 1952 before Ohioans voted him out in the 1958 anti-Republican right-to-work debacle.

Portman, 56, from suburban Cincinnati, has been on the statewide ballot just once. He may be better known in Washington, D.C., than he is in Barberton. He did travel the state extensively before clobbering Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, getting nearly 57 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Fisher, in the 2010 U.S. Senate race.

Fisher is smart and capable but earned the nickname “Landslide Lee” because at the statewide level he never personally won an overwhelming victory.

Also, 2010 was a very good Republican year. Besides winning the U.S. Senate race, the GOP won all statewide executive offices, took control of Ohio’s congressional delegation and regained control of the Ohio House while increasing their majority in the state Senate.

With early polls showing a virtual dead heat between Obama and Romney and the economic recovery up one day and down the next, it’s hard to tell what the political atmosphere will be in November.

In the meantime, Ohio Republicans should embrace vice presidential fever and hope it lasts.

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was Columbus bureau chief for the Dayton Daily News.