Debate Advice for Mitt Romney from One of His Former Coaches

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.

So much of what connects with an audience during and after a debate is based on tone. Critics have noted that Romney's tone in some of his past debates has been off-key. What is needed for the governor to overcome some of the perceived tonal issues he's had in past debates and build momentum during these three debates?

If he wins that first half-hour and wins the first debate, he will be viewed as the winner of the debates. Once you win one, it is hard for a candidate to come back and be perceived as winning the others. That's not to say the president can't come back and win them. It just makes the job a little tougher on the president. Governor Romney is a good speaker. He commands the stage and he commands the presence. He did very well in the Republican debates he was in and in his prepping for them. I think he'll be prepared. I just think the president has a perceived edge coming in.

And in terms of tone, just how important will that be for an audience of undecided voters?

Communication research shows that the audience reports that they get 65 percent of meaning of what is said of how it is said. This means how candidates say things matters. It really influences the dimension of likability and that's one of the areas audiences will look at. They'll ask, "Are they competent?" "Do they share the same visions and values?" and "Do I like them?" If a candidate comes off as arrogant or mean-spirited or anything negative, it hurts that dimension.

Historically, the impact of debates helping candidates close the gap or widen their lead in the polls has been a bit of a mixed bag. You've talked about the president's rhetorical prowess. Pundits have said that the debate format isn't Romney's best platform. Can Romney close the gap in the polls by the end of the three debates?

The most important thing and the reason that -- in the midst of an economy where unemployment is over 8 percent for over 40 months -- the reason the president continues to do well in the polls is that people like the president and are not blaming him for the economic conditions they find themselves in. What Governor Romney has to do is that he has to make the president own the economy. He has to make the president responsible for what all Americans agree is a bad economy. He has to link the president's policies to conditions in the economy right now. That's his number-one job. If he does that, you'll see the president fall back and people will begin to realize there's an alternative, especially if Governor Romney can sell a vision that's a more plausible vision than what we have now.

But do you think he can sell that vision effectively when a good number of undecided voters still haven't warmed to the alternative to President Obama at this stage of the game?

I absolutely can. One of the things people glazed over in this whole process and the reason Governor Romney did so well in most of the primary debates is that he stayed visionary and stayed above fray of the raucous of the debate, and was able to sell that vision effectively. If he can recapture that tone while at the same time going on the offense against the president and his economic record, then I think that's a great combination for him to do well in the debates.

You've talked about how Governor Romney tended to speak in conditionals in the Republican Primary debates in 2008. Do you see this as a lingering issue heading into the debates against President Obama?

I think the governor is a cautious man. I think that comes from his tenure as a CEO, where he wanted to make good decisions based on the best information. In the debates, he has got to be a little less cautious and be on the offensive. If he does that, then he won't have to worry about speaking in conditional terms. He can talk in maxims about the president's economic record. I think if he stays in that realm, it won't be a problem.

Do you think that the Romney camp's goal has gone from Governor Romney presenting himself to be a suitable alternative to the president to a scenario where Romney needs to have three very strong outings and have the president stumble somewhere along the way?

I don't think they have to have the president make some unbelievably bad mistake to do well coming out of the debates. If the governor worries about doing his job and does that successfully, which is to make Obama responsible for the economy, then it won't matter what the president does in the debates. The debate will become about the president's record, which is what they need to be and successfully selling his vision for an alternative. It shouldn't matter what the president does, and they shouldn't focus on the president making a mistake. They should have Governor Romney focus on the economy and be passionately aggressive, albeit respectively. He cannot get distracted to what the president will do, which will be to try to not talk about his economic record, and talk about women and the middle-class and scare people in terms of what Romney will do. The issue in the election is the economy and he has to frame the debate around that. If he's successful, they will come across and change the narrative about the campaign and put the president on the defensive. He will have to defend his record instead of making the debates and election about Governor Romney.