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Top GOP debate coach says Romney needs more than debate win

September 26, 2012|By Paul West
  • GOP presidential contenders debate in Florida in January. Mitt Romney's performances during the primary season debates improved after he prepped with debate coach Brett O'Donnell. O'Donnell is not working with Romney on his upcoming debates with President Obama.
GOP presidential contenders debate in Florida in January. Mitt Romney's… (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty…)

If it’s really true that the debates are Mitt Romney’s best chance to rescue his presidential candidacy, you might think his campaign would, once again, be sending an S.O.S. for Brett O’Donnell, a leading practitioner of the mysterious art of debate prep.

But you would be wrong.

O’Donnell, who played a hand in Romney’s rebound from the lowest point of his primary run, is spending the fall as a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, a short drive across town from Romney’s Boston waterfront headquarters. But O'Donnell's services haven’t been requested.

“Nope,” he said, when asked if he is involved in Romney’s debate preparations.

Those who followed the primaries closely may recall that Romney’s tight inner circle cracked open momentarily last winter: O’Donnell was brought to help with debate prep after Romney suffered a double-digit loss to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. O’Donnell had worked with George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, helped sharpen John McCain’s message in the 2008 primaries and been described by Mark McKinnon, a former Bush strategist, as “simply the best in the business” at preparing candidates for debates.

DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?

Once O’Donnell became involved, Romney delivered his sharpest debate performances of the primary season. His newly assertive style helped turn the tide in Florida. And though his campaign’s negative-ad barrage against Gingrich may have been more decisive, Romney himself said after his Florida victory that “if you’re to go back and look at where the sentiment changed, it was with the debates.”

But despite his efforts — or more likely as a consequence — O’Donnell got dumped. A Politico report said internal staff tensions were behind the decision to end the relationship. The article also cited “the sense in Boston” that O’Donnell’s role may have been exaggerated in media accounts. But one Romney advisor who was present for the debate-prep sessions acknowledged at the time that O’Donnell had clearly made a difference.

Publicly, at least, the Romney camp held out the possibility that O’Donnell might be brought back. Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney aide, was quoted at the time as saying that O’Donnell had been “helpful” in preparations for the Florida debates and that the campaign was “open to working with him again down the line.” But no offer ever came, according to O’Donnell, who won’t discuss the episode.

O’Donnell describes Romney as “a debate technician” and says he’s unlikely to commit a big mistake or gaffe. And he said that Obama goes into the debates with an edge, a view that is contrary to the conventional wisdom that, particularly in a first debate, a challenger gains stature by sharing the stage with an incumbent president.

Obama “gets to use the position of the office and that gives him an incredible advantage coming into the debates,” he said. “If he moves out of the role, if people stop seeing him as the president, I think that hurts him.” Obama, he added, needs to keep doing what he has been doing: shift voter attention away from the nation’s economic problems and toward issues, such as those involving women and the middle class, that have been working for him in the campaign.

Romney, meantime, “has to stay on offense. And what I mean by that is, he has to keep pressing the president on the economy,” O’Donnell said.

It won’t be enough for Romney merely to talk about how bad things are economically. “He’s got to make specific arguments that tie Obama to the causes of the economy that we’re in right now,” O’Donnell said. “He’s got to litigate the case in the debates that President Obama is directly responsible.”

Yet O’Donnell doesn’t see winning the series of three presidential debates, which start Oct. 3 in Denver, as all that Romney needs to do to overtake Obama, who leads in most state and national polling.

“I think the debates offer Gov. Romney an opportunity. But while the debates are an important moment in the narrative of the campaign, they are not the overall campaign,” he said. “I wouldn’t advise the Romney campaign to believe that the debates are everything.”

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