Is Josh Mandel the Next Marco Rubio?

The Republicans' much-hyped Ohio hope still has a bit of a frat boy demeanor, but his bid to unseat Sherrod Brown could make him a GOP star.

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GROVE CITY, OHIO -- It is after midnight at a Steak 'n Shake diner outside Columbus, and the Republican Party's next great hope is yawning as he pokes at his plate of cottage cheese.

Josh Mandel, the Ohio state treasurer making an upstart bid to knock off Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, has had a long day. To show just how long, he grabs a paper Steak 'n Shake place mat and turns it over, borrowing my pen and painstakingly drawing the outline of the state on the back. (Ohio's odd shape is difficult to describe; the way Mandel draws it, it looks a bit like a bulky diaper.)

There was the early-morning campaign stop at a diner in Cincinnati, followed by meetings with businesspeople there and in Columbus. He went to the treasurer's office and got some work done, he says, and then it was back to Cincinnati for radio appearances and an evening speaking engagement before the two-hour drive to the Steak 'n Shake. Tomorrow will be just as packed: He's swearing in a new council member in Cleveland, meeting with retirees in Youngstown and activists in Niles, having lunch with his family for his sister's birthday, and then speaking at a Republican event in Bowling Green.

Asked to autograph the map, dotted with cities and criscrossed with arrows, Mandel writes in the corner in careful capital letters: "MOLLY -- NEVER FORGET YOUR STEAK-N-SHAKE DEBUT!", signing underneath in neat cursive.

Republicans believe Mandel could be the next big thing -- the next member of a new generation of fresh-faced conservatives that includes Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, two staunch conservatives elected to the Senate in 2010 at the age of 39. Next week, in fact, Rubio is coming to Ohio to campaign with Mandel. "This guy is the real story coming out of Ohio," one longtime GOP consultant in the state tells me. "He's the rock star of the party."

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A former Marine who was elected to the city council of Lyndhurst, a Cleveland suburb, at the age of 25, Mandel served two terms in the state legislature, representing a strongly Democratic district, before winning the treasurer's post in 2010. Now he is taking on Brown, the progressive stalwart Mandel describes as too far left for this perennial swing state. Elected in 2006 after a decade and a half in the House, Brown is viewed by the GOP as an accidental senator, swept in by a national Democratic wave. The race is likely to be one of the most intense Senate contests of the year.

Though he turned 34 a few months ago, with his big ears, boyish face and skinny neck, Mandel seems far younger. It's not just his looks. His tone of voice tends to rise at the ends of sentences; he often tilts his chin up and squints while he speaks. He talks slowly and deliberately, his sentences punctuated with "um" and "you know." At one point, he bounces up and down in his seat on the red and black striped Steak 'n Shake banquette.

Asked what makes him think he's ready to be a U.S. senator, Mandel looks me gravely in the eye.

"The Constitution," he says, pausing for effect, "says that you have to be 30 years old. And I think the people who wrote the United States Constitution had a wisdom about them that was very special, and a vision for America that should be appreciated."

Another long pause. "I served two tours in Iraq? In the Marine Corps?" he says. "I'm the treasurer of the state of Ohio, where, when the United States credit rating was downgraded for the first time in American history, and 14 government funds around the country were downgraded, we earned the highest rating we could earn on our $4 billion investment fund. Where we navigated the European sovereign debt crisis with a yield, rather than a significant loss like so many other -- er, unlike so many other -- a loss -- you know what I'm trying to say. With a yield rather than a loss, when so many other corporations and organizations and governments lost money around the country."

Mandel is on a roll now, deep into his well-practiced and not unimpressive talking points. "Our liquidity portfolio is up $1.4 billion from the day I took office, and we accomplished all that while cutting $1.2 million from our operating budget," he adds. "All of that put together, we believe, paints a very strong contrast between one of the most effective and efficient state treasurer's offices in America and the mess that is Washington, D.C."

Mandel goes on to note that his state legislative district was heavily Democratic. "All of that combined presents to the people of Ohio the candidate who's not only well equipped to represent them as a United States senator, but much more well equipped to represent them than someone like Sherrod Brown, who's been running for office since Richard Nixon was president and who's been in Washington for two decades," he says.

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I ask him if that's what he says to all the little old Republican ladies who tell him how young he looks.

"Yeah, you know, uh, parts of that, right?" he says. "I sort of, like, told you everything. But, uh, you know -- the condensed version is, I'm a strong fiscal conservative, with the backbone of a Marine who's going to shake up Washington and has the backbone to stand up to the leaders of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to do what's right for the state of Ohio."

Mandel, who is Jewish, has the air of a precocious, recently bar mitzvahed student, or perhaps a studious, slightly cocky frat boy. (As an undergraduate at Ohio State, Mandel was a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity; he went on to earn a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.) And while he is undeniably skilled at rattling off his familiar lines, he quickly turns evasive or just blank on unfamiliar ground.

He has not been following the presidential race at all and wants to know if I've seen any recent polls. "I think, if it's over in, like, March or April, that's, like, pretty early, right?" he says. When I try to ask him about Rush Limbaugh's recent comments calling a young liberal activist a "slut," a controversy that has consumed the political media for days, he says he has no idea what I'm talking about. Informed that I write for The Atlantic, he muses, "I read an article once in the Atlantic Monthly. It was about Donald Rumsfeld -- does that make sense? It was, like, a biographical --"

"A profile?"

"Yeah, something like that. There was, like, a lot of things I didn't know about him. It was cool."

Mandel also knows the value of political evasion. Asked about the recent Senate vote to allow employers to drop health insurance coverage for religious reasons, he refuses to say.

"You know, we've had a policy throughout our campaign that we're not going to pretend like we're a Washington politician like Sherrod Brown," he says. "We're not. And so we don't pretend to cast votes on all these different pieces of legislation going through Washington. You know, we leave that to Sherrod Brown and the other career politicians."

Mandel does have a general statement to make -- one he will repeat four times, identically, in response to my repeated questions.

"I believe that American citizens should have the right to purchase birth control if they choose," he says. "I also think that the Catholic Church has the right to follow its doctrine and its teachings."

But the debate, of course, has been over how to resolve those broadly undisputed principles. On that, Mandel refuses to take a stand, insisting that it would be ridiculous to, "sitting here in Columbus, Ohio...pretend like I'm a Washington politician and cast imaginary votes."

Mandel has taken a position on plenty of other pieces of legislation, such as the TARP bailout, which he criticizes in strong terms. Weighing in on current Senate business might help voters understand what kind of senator he would make, I note.

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"Right," he says. There is a long pause. Mandel stares at me.

"So, I mean, I can talk to you about the issue, you know, broadly," he says, finally. He repeats his statement about birth control and the church and rights for the fourth time.

"We could do this all night," he says, with a defiant smirk.

It is a similar story with the auto bailout, which comes up a few minutes later. Mandel will not say whether he believes the rescue of the automotive industry has been a success -- "I think time will tell," he says, three times. Nor will he take a position for or against the rescue: "Again, one of those pieces of legislation where, you know, I'm not going to pretend I'm a Washington politician." But doesn't his reasoning on the Wall Street bailout apply, I ask? "I'd have to think about that," he says.

Mandel mentions that he's meeting the next day with retirees from Delphi, an Ohio-based automotive parts manufacturer whose workers lost part of their pensions in the industry bailout. Don't they deserve to know his stance on the issue, I ask?

"One thing I will commit to the people of Ohio is when I'm a U.S. senator and there's issues being debated in Washington when I'm a U.S. senator, they'll know exactly what my position is," Mandel says.

Mandel's position on the Wall Street bailout is clear, and he cites it as an example of a time he would have stood up to his own party. "In 2008 and 2009, if you were a lady who owned a mom-and-pop diner in Toledo, Ohio, and the diner was struggling, the federal government wouldn't bail you out," he said. "Why would they bail out the banks on Wall Street?"

What does he think would have happened without the bailout, I ask. "I think the strongest institutions would have survived and the weakest institutions probably would have been acquired by stronger institutions. And that's the free enterprise system that has worked in America," he said.

Would he have been OK with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in shareholder value being lost as a result, as most economists believe would have happened? "I think the premise of your question is presumptuous, and it's impossible for you to sit here at Steak 'n Shake in 2012 and say you know tens of thousands of people would have lost their job," he replies.

But the question, I say, is whether that would have been an acceptable result, or whether government ought to cushion the blow of those sorts of free-market processes.

At this point the waitress, who has bad skin and dyed-black hair, arrives with more coffee for Mandel's weary driver. (Mandel is drinking iced tea.) "How's that cottage cheese for you?" she asks.

"It's good, Amanda," he says.

Mandel turns back to the question. "I guess I would put it back on you," he says. He points again to the unfairness of small business owners who didn't get bailed out. "It's just an unfair process, and every single Republican that voted for it was wrong," he says

I ask him if there have been any times in the last three years that he's agreed with the president and disagreed with his party. There is a 20-second pause as Mandel considers this.

"You know, I agree with President Obama that in Iraq and Afghanistan, at some point in time, we have to take the training wheels off and we have to allow those countries to stand on their own two feet," he says. "At the same time, I respectfully disagree with President Obama at the way he's conducted the pullout from Iraq and the way he's established dates certain for pullouts in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Polls thus far have shown Brown with a healthy lead on Mandel. Mandel, however, is a prodigious fundraiser who will have plenty of cash to make his case on television. He'll also have lots of assistance from outside groups -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already spent millions of dollars on ads attacking Brown. And Mandel is also a dogged grassroots campaigner. During his first legislative race, he loves to note, he knocked on "approximately 19,679 doors" and wore out three pairs of shoes. (In speeches, Mandel stows the shoes under the podium, then raises them above his head for dramatic effect; there are indeed large holes in the heels.)

By the time we leave the restaurant, filing past the neon "Takhomasak" sign above the register and some extremely drunk young men by the door, it is after 1 a.m. I note that I've never met a politician at a Steak 'n Shake in the middle of the night before.

"Yeah, well," Mandel says, in a nonchalant tone. "I'm more a Steak 'n Shake guy than a steakhouse kind of guy."

Image credit: Associated Press/Jay LaPrete

Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.


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