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Mitt Romney debate coach cited as potential game-changer

Shift after S.C. marked by more aggressive style

AP Photo

Brett O’Donnell, an award-winning debate coach, is adept at preparing candidates to make their points succinctly.

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - 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 primary.

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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.

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 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 President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

O’Donnell was also the top debate coach for Senator John McCain in 2008 and, more recently, for Representative Michele Bachmann until she dropped out.

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.’’

Romney discussed his improved performance in an interview Monday 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.

O’Donnell, 47, who like other members of Romney’s team declined to be interviewed, played down his role in Romney’s debate turnaround.

“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, Va.

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.

Debating specialists could see the difference. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania said that while Romney’s earlier performances were “competent,’’ and showed a command of detail, they were not particularly memorable - especially when he was under fire for refusing to immediately release his tax returns - and featured halting answers and awkward pauses.

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.’’

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