CONCORD, N.H. - Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a top prospect to become Mitt Romney's running mate, told reporters on Saturday he has "no plans" to meet with the presumptive nominee who is vacationing in nearby Wolfeboro. But his denial came at an unusually public venue -- a roundtable for reporters that the Romney campaign said was organized by the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Portman also said he was in the state to visit colleges with his 17-year-old daughter and headline a fundraiser for the state party. He declined to comment on whether the Romney campaign is vetting him for the number-two slot, instead suggesting that fellow New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte might make a good running mate.
Portman's attempt to remain at arm's length from the Romney campaign didn't stop him from delivering a forceful defense of the former Massachusetts governor's record. He said he also will travel to Boston on Monday to participate in events for the campaign.
Some observers perceive that the Ohio senator's greatest weakness is his ties to George W. Bush's administration, in which he served as both the Office of Management and Budget director and U.S. trade representative. He scoffed at the idea that his background would represent a political liability for Romney.
"I served there in the Office of Management and Budget and as U.S. Trade Representative at a time when we had a strong economy, at a time when we had deficits that we would die for today," Portman said, noting he was able to propose a budget that would have been balanced in five years. "I'm proud of that record."
He also defended Romney against charges that the health care law hepassed in Massachusetts resembles the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature piece of legislation. Both laws require those who chose not to purchase insurance to pay a penalty, which the Supreme Court says is a tax at the federal level.
"This notion that somehow President Obama and Gov. Romney have similar positions on health care is ridiculous," Portman said. "They couldn't be further apart. There will be an absolute contrast here for voters in New Hampshire and Ohio and around the country to look at."
Romney has yet to offer a detailed health care alternative he would propose to replace the current law, but Portman repeated the campaign's general statements about lowering costs through increased competition and transparency.
He also brushed off a question about recent criticism the Romney campaign has faced from top conservatives, including a piece by the Wall Street Journal's editorial board that said the campaign is "slowly squandering an historic opportunity."
"There has never been a campaign where there hasn't been sniping from the outside, and second-guessing," Portman said. But he did encourage Romney to respond to allegations such as attacks from the Obama campaign that attempt to portray his record at the helm of Bain Capital in a bad light by highlighting the company's connections to shipping jobs overseas.
"I frankly wonder why the Obama campaign wants to talk so much about his private sector experience, because I think that's a huge advantage," he said.