By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney would tackle tough debt and deficit problems if elected on November 6 in ways that could leave him at risk of being a one-term president, a potential vice presidential running mate, Senator Rob Portman, said on Tuesday.
"This is something I have never said publicly, I've told my wife this, but I think he'd be willing to risk being a one-term president in order to make the tough decisions that are going to be required," Portman told the Reuters Washington Summit.
The Ohio senator was quick to add that he did not believe a President Romney would face such a scenario, and that voters would "reward that kind of leadership" with a second term by making the difficult decisions to reverse America's lingering fiscal problems and generate economic growth.
Painful and unpopular choices await the next president of the United States, whether it be Romney or the Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, in getting control of $1 trillion annual deficits and a national debt of $15 trillion.
It was Obama who once said if he cannot get the economy back on track, he'd be looking at a "one-term proposition," a statement Romney has frequently used to try to convince voters to oust his opponent.
Portman, a former budget director for President George W. Bush, sounded similar to deficit hawk Mitch Daniels, the conservative Indiana governor who warns of a "red menace" of deficit spending and rising debt.
"MOST PREDICTABLE ECONOMIC CRISIS"
Portman called the current U.S. fiscal situation the "most predictable economic crisis" in history and one that should be addressed before lawmakers convene in a "lame-duck session" at the end of the year.
The year-end session in November and December could be particularly eventful because Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire and Republicans want them all extended but Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Portman, who has been involved in Senate negotiations over tackling the debt, said the current tax structure should be extended only temporarily, until next April 15, to allow time for an overhaul of the U.S. tax code.
Other Republicans have talked about keeping the cuts either indefinitely or for a year in order to enact tax reform. The last time Congress addressed the tax cuts was in 2010 when they were extended for two years after a lengthy battle.
Portman would not discuss whether he is being vetted as a vice presidential choice for Romney. Portman, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are among leading Republicans believed to be on Romney's short list.
Portman referred any question about the running mate search to the Romney campaign. "If they want to talk about it, they can," he said at the summit held at Reuters' Washington office.
With deep experience in Washington that Romney lacks, Portman has the added attraction of being from the crucial swing state of Ohio, which Romney will likely need to win if he is to become the next president. He rode with Romney on his bus tour through the state earlier this month.
Ohio's 7.2 percent unemployment rate is lower than the 8.2 national average, suggesting Romney faces an uphill climb in convincing the state to side with him. Portman said, however, that voters are "fed up" with the sluggish economy.
"It's going to be a close election in Ohio," he said. "It always is."
Both Romney and Portman are in agreement that a reduction in the corporate tax rate should be made from the current 35 percent, which is among the steepest corporate tax rates among its industrialized peers.
The two Republicans may have a slight, nuanced difference on U.S. bailouts credited with saving the auto industry. Romney opposed the bailouts as delaying the auto industry from going through a managed bankruptcy process.
Portman agreed but says the "government had a role to play" in helping the industry. The Romney campaign pointed out their candidate has made similar comments, and that Romney has said the federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing.
Portman said one way to boost the U.S. economy would be through boosting U.S. exports. He said Romney would move aggressively to negotiate a series of bilateral free trade agreements, while holding China's feet to the fire on trade and currency.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Deborah Charles, John Whitesides, Gabriel Debenedetti and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Anthony Boadle)