The Stump

And Tonight's MVP Award Goes To ... Mitt Romney's Debate Coach?

Mitt Romney offers a handshake to GOP rival Newt Gingrich after a Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Fla., the last debate before the Florida primary. i i

Mitt Romney offers a handshake to GOP rival Newt Gingrich after a Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Fla., the last debate before the Florida primary. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Mitt Romney offers a handshake to GOP rival Newt Gingrich after a Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Fla., the last debate before the Florida primary.

Mitt Romney offers a handshake to GOP rival Newt Gingrich after a Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Fla., the last debate before the Florida primary.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Mitt Romney's big victory in the Florida primary, there's one person in particular he may want to thank: his debate coach, Brett O'Donnell.

NPR's Teresa Tomassoni reported tonight on All Things Considered about the man who helped shape Romney's new debate personality, widely credited with helping Romney turn the momentum from Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21 (which was itself fueled by Gingrich's strong debate outings).

O'Donnell also has groomed George W. Bush, John McCain and, most recently, Michele Bachmann, in their debate performances.

Earlier in the primary season, Romney made some notable debate gaffes — challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet and skirting an answer on how many years of his tax returns he would release.

Then in the past eight days, his rhetoric in two debates scored him points.

NPR's Ron Elving noted in his debate recap on Friday that "again and again, Romney managed to find ways to score" against his main challenger, Newt Gingrich.

The hiring of an effective debate coach will not cure all the problems Romney has in connecting with voters. It is possible his high income and low tax rate will combine to undercut his standing, even in a GOP that likes wealth and low taxes. We can also wonder whether Romney will ever overcome his Massachusetts health care plan and other baggage from his years as governor of that liberal state.

But the Gingrich thrust that has most recently imperiled a Romney nomination was a wound inflicted almost exclusively in TV debates. And based on the two debates of this week, that particular thrust has now been parried. Any further deterioration in Romney's standing will have to be laid to some other, more fundamental weakness in his candidacy.

Brett O'Donnell, right, at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. O'Donnell worked with GOP presidential candidate John McCain as his debate coach. i i

Brett O'Donnell, right, at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. O'Donnell worked with GOP presidential candidate John McCain as his debate coach. Charles Dharapak/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Brett O'Donnell, right, at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. O'Donnell worked with GOP presidential candidate John McCain as his debate coach.

Brett O'Donnell, right, at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. O'Donnell worked with GOP presidential candidate John McCain as his debate coach.

Charles Dharapak/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tomassini reports that during Thursday night's CNN debate, Romney "seemed well prepared not only to defend himself, but also to launch some jabs. Like when he smacked down Newt Gingrich's plan to colonize the moon."

Mark McKinnon, a top advisor to George W. Bush, says that the Jan. 26 debate was Romney's best performance yet.

"Brett's the only guy I know in the business who actually has that kind of formal training and background," says McKinnon.

O'Donnell trained college debaters for nearly 20 years at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. During that time, his teams won more than a dozen national championships.

And now the debate coach is receiving some credit of his own, making it to GQ's "Weekly D.C. Power List."

UPDATE 10 p.m. ET: Early exit polls from the AP show "about two-thirds of Florida voters called recent debates an important factor in their vote, about on par with the level saying so in South Carolina."

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