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.