The call went out the night Mitt Romney lost the South Carolina primary.
Brett O’Donnell, award winning debate-coach to college students and presidential candidates alike, was needed in Florida, where Romney would be preparing for two televised debates over the next five days that could be pivotal to his chances of winning the state’s Jan. 31 primary.
O’Donnell was in Tampa the next day, and less than 48 hours later, a pithier and more combative Romney showed up Jan. 23 to debate Newt Gingrich, who had dominated two such televised gatherings in South Carolina in performances strategists credited with propelling him to victory there Jan. 21.
Romney’s feistier delivery and more aggressive style that night -- reprised Jan. 26 in Jacksonville -- may have helped turn the tide for him in Florida, where polls show him surging.
Danny Palmer, 63, a retired pilot from the Pensacola suburb of Gulf Breeze, said he had been “firmly a Newt Gingrich supporter” before the Jan. 26 debate when Romney focused on the former speaker’s consulting work for Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored mortgage lending company that has required billions in taxpayer bail-out funds.
“The turning point for me was when Newt brought up the fact of Mitt’s investing in Freddie Mac, and he turned it back on Newt and said, ‘You have the same stuff!’ He showed some fight,” said Palmer, who now backs Romney.
It came as no surprise to campaign operatives and debate specialists who have worked with O’Donnell and call him a master coach, as adept at preparing candidates to make their points succinctly as he is at pumping them up before they take the stage.
“Brett actually studied and taught debate at the highest levels before bringing his considerable chops to politics,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked with O’Donnell on former President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
Romney, 64, deserves most of the credit for his improved debate performances last week, McKinnon said, adding: “But having Brett O’Donnell aboard for debate prep is going to raise the level of anyone’s game, because Brett is simply the best in the business.”
‘Loud and Clear’
Romney discussed his improved performance in an interview today on NBC’s “Today” program. “We were getting just wailed on by Speaker Gingrich and really didn’t respond very well” in South Carolina, he said. The shift in momentum in Florida is the result of making sure “that our message is out loud and clear,” he said.
A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows Romney with a 14-point lead -- 43 percent to 29 percent -- over Gingrich, up from a nine-point lead on Jan. 27. The margin of error of the telephone poll, which surveyed 539 likely voters in the Republican primary, is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Romney credited the two debates in Florida for the change in sentiment. “I was able to confront Speaker Gingrich,” he said. “I pushed back on the attacks.”
O’Donnell, 47, who like other members of Romney’s team declined to be interviewed for this story, played down his role in Romney’s debate turnaround last week.
“Governor Romney’s a very good candidate, so it was just a matter of talking through strategy,” O’Donnell told WSET-TV, an ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Virginia on Jan. 27.
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign had phoned him the previous Saturday night and he was at work coaching Romney by the following Monday morning, he told the station.
Debate Experts’ Perspective
Debating experts could see the difference. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania said while Romney’s earlier performances were “competent,” and showed a command of detail, they were not particularly memorable and in some cases -- particularly when he was under fire for refusing to immediately release his tax returns -- featured halting answers, awkward pauses, and indecisive language.
“Instead of leaning into the podium, he leaned back from it,” Jamieson said in an e-mail. In the Jacksonville debate, she said, “his answers were quicker and delivered in a more decisive and aggressive fashion.” And Romney “got the final word in key exchanges with Gingrich, and won audience applause for doing so.”
Jamieson said changes of that scope in such a short period of time “are probably the result of coaching. His best moments were clearly rehearsed, but nonetheless effectively delivered,” she said.
Romney began the Jan. 26 debate demanding an apology from Gingrich for using what he called “inexcusable” and “repulsive” language in a Florida radio advertisement that branded Romney “anti-immigrant.” Later, he goaded Gingrich into rehashing his criticism of Romney’s wealth, pouncing when he did with an energetic defense of his financial fortunes that concluded, “I’m proud of being successful.”
And when Gingrich, 68, portrayed Romney’s position that all illegal immigrants should leave the U.S. as impractical, citing how unlikely it was that grandmothers would be deported, Romney was ready with a riposte:
“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” he said, drawing applause that had eluded him in past debates.
‘Tuning Things Up’
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior campaign adviser, said Romney had been “deliberately trying to keep things cool, but also be firm at the same time.” Fehrnstrom said most of the debate preparation happened early on, and Romney’s more recent rehearsals had been “just a matter of tuning things up.”
Romney also had received some debate advice from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who urged him to go on rhetorical offense, according to two people familiar with their conversation who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
The skills Romney displayed on the debate stage last week are vintage O’Donnell, said Michael Hall, his former student and later co-debate coach with O’Donnell at Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg whose debate department is named for him.
O’Donnell was adept at coaching his students in “the ability to say something efficiently,” said Hall, who said he has also helped with his political clients. “There are a lot of debaters and a lot of candidates who can say things in a very articulate and persuasive way in a stump speech, but the time-pressures of a debate are a unique element that demand a different type of persuasion, and Brett had a very good way of teaching that.”
‘Energized and Motivated’
At debate time, students and clients could also expect “a version of a pre-game speech designed to get you energized and motivated” from O’Donnell, Hall said.
“One of Brett’s primary concerns was going to be making sure that you were focused and that you were pumped up for the debate -- really that you had good energy levels,” Hall said.
O’Donnell is no newcomer to the debate game. According to a biography on the website of his company O’Donnell and Associates Strategic Communications, he served as Liberty’s debate director for 18 years, earning the school’s team championship titles as well as his own national award in 1997 as debate coach of the year.
Bachmann a Client
After working with Bush, he coached Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann hired him last year for her presidential bid, and shortly after she suspended it in January following a sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the Romney team picked O’Donnell up, Fehrnstrom said.
Romney also isn’t the first candidate to reach out to O’Donnell to help spark a quick campaign turnaround at a crucial point. When McCain’s team was worried about former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s shaky rehearsal performances in advance of a pivotal vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden in October 2008, McCain’s advisers dispatched O’Donnell to help her prepare.
His latest client sounds pleased with the results. As he crisscrossed Florida over the weekend making his final pitches to voters before the primary, Romney opened most of his stump speeches ribbing Gingrich about his debate performances in the state and boasting about his own.
“Those debates were fun -- wasn’t that a hoot?” Romney said yesterday at a rally in Naples. “I felt energy, just up there on the stage -- it could not have been better!”