Debate Advice for Mitt Romney from One of His Former Coaches

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Romney can upend the race if he goes on the offensive and wins the first 40 minutes of the first debate, says a former debate coach for Bush, McCain and Romney himself.

brettodonnellRomney advisors Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom and Brett O'Donnell (R) in Tampa, Fla., in January 2012. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Brett O'Donnell had a whirlwind primary season. A top debate coach for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid four years ago, O'Donnell was a senior strategist for Rep. Michele Bachmann's run at the Republican nomination until it folded after her Iowa caucuses loss. After that O'Donnell -- a GOP presidential debate prep heavyweight who had also earlier worked with President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the lead-up to the 2004 debates -- began working with Mitt Romney.

The partnership came as Romney was slugging it out with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the final rounds of the GOP primary debates. Having worked for two Romney opponents -- McCain and Bachmann -- O'Donnell felt he'd gained an understanding of the future GOP nominee's debating strengths and weaknesses. Romney won plaudits for improved debate performances after O'Donnell worked with him, but the veteran debate coach was not retained by the Romney campaign -- reportedly because of campaign dissatisfaction over the amount of media attention O'Donnell received in the wake of Romney's strong performances in the Florida debates.

Now a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, O'Donnell is eager to see what Romney will do in the upcoming debates against President Obama, the first of which takes place on Wednesday evening. O'Donnell spoke to The Atlantic by phone on Friday afternoon and laid out his thinking on how Romney can use the three October debates to change the campaign narrative and win in November. Questions have been condensed and edited for clarity.

In the past, you've touched on how candidates win debates in the first 30 or 40 minutes. What kind of strategy does a candidate and the candidate's camp need to construct in order to win that first portion of the debate?

In that first half hour or 40 minutes, you have to appear to be the better debater; appear to be more likable; more competent; and share the audience's values more than your opponent does. You have to try to capture a moment, and capture the imagination of the press and the audience. In the first half-hour, you have to start strong. From the beginning of the debate, you have to make it very clear you're on the offensive. You have a message to deliver throughout the entire debate and you have to make it clear to the audience what that message is.

Romney recently told ABC News that he's going to fact check the president during the course of the three debates. What are some of the complications that go along with trying to fact check your opponent in a debate, while still being able to effectively deliver your message that you're the right guy to be president?

I think that Governor Romney's point is that he's going to hold President Obama's feet to the fire in claims he makes about the economy. Remember, Romney will have a war room that will be examining everything said in the debate, so he will be able to fact check the president. What Governor Romney meant to say by fact checking is that he thinks the president hasn't been telling the truth of the economy and will hold the president's feet to fire in terms of claims he makes about the economy during the debate. That's his task. His task in the debate is to tie the president's economic policies to the results, which haven't been very good.

In your time as a debate coach with the Romney camp earlier this year, you were praised for helping improve Romney's debate performances. Pundits have pointed out that, over the course of his political career, the debate platform hasn't been Romney's strongest suit. How do you think he has improved leading up to the first debate Wednesday?

There's no substitute for experience and Governor Romney has had a good deal of it now after all the Republican debates. I think not just in January, but I think across the debates you've seen the governor get better and better and grow as a political debater. I think what's happened is he's getting more and more comfortable. The primary task of a person doing debate prep is to make sure that the candidate has knowledge needed heading in, be sure to have a sound strategy to execute in the debate, but also making sure that they are comfortable and mentally ready to do the debate. I think Governor Romney's team has done a good job making sure that occurs.

In past presidential debates, there have been challenges presented to candidates who are debating an incumbent president, no matter the party. What are some of the challenges Governor Romney faces debating an incumbent?

The incumbent president always has a leg up coming into the debates. He's viewed as the victor, as the person who occupies the office of the president, so the burden is really on the challenger. It is less on the incumbent to prove they should hold the office and more on the challenger to prove that change is necessary. The president comes in with an advantage in that he is perceived to have won the last set of presidential debates. Governor Romney has never done presidential debates at this level. Those are things that the president comes in with heading into the debates. He has the office of the president. That affords him an enormous amount of information and a leg up in understanding the context of the issues as he deals with them on day-in, day-out basis. The president has made his living on the rhetorical presidency. The president acts in word more than action and in deed, so he is quite polished in terms of rhetorical prowess.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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