April 20, 2024

CLEVELAND — Sen, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., danced around his interest in launching a third-party presidential bid here Thursday, but he endorsed a potential running mate if he does.

“Hypothetically, if I was picking my running mate, really who I would ask right now is Mitt Romney,” Manchin said, identifying the Republican senator from Utah.

Manchin also said he would consider former Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, as a vice presidential pick.

“Rob’s a dear friend of mine,” Manchin said. “What a good man.”

Manchin offered several pointed criticisms of President Joe Biden in the appearance at a City Club of Cleveland breakfast — part of his nationwide “listening tour” that followed his decision to not seek another Senate term. The tour, which included a stop last month in New Hampshire ahead of that state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, has fueled speculation that Manchin might mount an independent or third-party campaign for president. He’s been linked to the No Labels organization’s effort to field a bipartisan ticket. 

City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop, who moderated the forum, repeatedly pressed Manchin on his 2024 intentions — and Manchin repeatedly dodged, offering meandering responses and asides. During the audience question-and-answer session, an attendee tried again, asking who Manchin believed his Democratic opponent would be if he were to run for president.

“Guys, listen, I’m not running for anything,” Manchin replied. “I’m basically running to try to get people involved.”

Afterward, Manchin acknowledged to reporters that he hasn’t ruled out a White House campaign.

“Third party run, everything is on the table,” Manchin said in response to a question from NBC News. “Nothing’s off the table. I’m still evaluating all that. Super Tuesday [March 5] pretty much would be a deadline that tells you where you are.”

Manchin’s daughter has launched a group, Americans Together, that could be a vehicle for such preparations. The senator’s Cleveland visit was part of a new series of appearances set to include Columbus, Ohio, later Thursday. Manchin also is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club on Feb. 26 — the day before the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan.

More than 150 people attended the event at the City Club, which bills itself as the “citadel of free speech” and is known for requiring its speakers to accept unscripted questions from the audience. Until Donald Trump, every sitting U.S. president since Ronald Reagan had addressed the club.

Thursday’s event drew a bipartisan audience. Those on hand included Rob Frost, the former chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, and Cleveland City Councilman Danny Kelly, a Democrat and longtime labor leader. After the breakfast, Manchin met privately with Albert Ratner, a longtime real estate developer and powerbroker in Cleveland who has donated to candidates from both parties.

Manchin took several swipes at Biden. He complained that Biden had gone “so far to the left,” while at another point simultaneously praising Biden for moving more to the political center on border security while also criticizing his policies.

“First of all, if you want to blame Joe Biden, he’s totally guilty as charged on opening up the border and making it what we have today,” Manchin said. “And I’ve told him I’ve been disagreeing with him from Day One.” 

Manchin, 76, also made a quip about Biden’s age, which has become a major focal point for voters. Special counsel Robert Hur recently described Biden, 81, as an “elderly man with a poor memory” in a report explaining why he had declined to prosecute the president for his handling of classified documents.

“He’s a little older than I am,” Manchin said of Biden during the forum.

Moulthrop interjected: “You were like a freshman when he was a senior?”

“Pretty much,” Manchin replied.

Asked by a reporter afterward about Hur’s report and whether he found Biden to be mentally sharp, Manchin said he has had no issues communicating directly with Biden or Trump.

“If you’re going to base on memory, your vote, and if that’s your two choices, we’re in trouble,” Manchin said. “When the president made a mistake and a gaffe of calling the president of Egypt, identifying him as the president of Mexico, and then you have Donald Trump saying that Nikki Haley is Nancy Pelosi, you’ve got a problem.” 

“But if you’re basing on character,” Manchin said, “I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Manchin then clarified that he meant Biden was the better of the two.

As for Romney, Manchin has previously joked about teaming up with him. During votes in the Senate last week, Romney said as he was walking with Manchin: “We are a ticket. There’s no question we are.”

“We are; he wants to be the not stupid party,” Manchin said.

“We’re taking a cognitive test right now, Romney added. “So we’ll let you know.”