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What a difference 10 days can make. After being battered in South Carolina, Mitt Romney appears to have righted his campaign. He did that in part by turning in a commanding performance in each of Florida's two televised debates. NPR's Teresa Tomassoni profiles the man behind Romney's new stage presence.
TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: Brett O'Donnell coached George W. Bush, John McCain and Michele Bachmann. Mitt Romney is his latest student, and it's starting to show. Just two weeks ago in South Carolina, Romney said he wasn't sure if he would release his tax returns.
MITT ROMNEY: You know, I don't know how many years I'll release. I'll take a look at what the - what our documents are.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
TOMASSONI: Before that, in Iowa, he really put his foot in his mouth when he challenged Rick Perry to a hefty bet, one only a millionaire could afford.
ROMNEY: I'll tell you what...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROMNEY: Ten thousand bucks?
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: Ten-thousand-dollar bet?
TOMASSONI: And in Las Vegas, it seemed he might throw a tantrum.
ROMNEY: Rick, again...
RICK SANTORUM: You had the war.
ROMNEY: Rick, I'm speaking.
SANTORUM: You had your newspaper...
ROMNEY: I'm speakingâ¦
SANTORUM: The newspaper...
ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking.
SANTORUM: It's time for you to...
TOMASSONI: But last week in Jacksonville, Romney kept his cool. He seemed well-prepared, not only to defend himself, but also to strike some jabs. Like when he smacked down Newt Gingrich's plan to colonize the moon.
ROMNEY: if I had a business executive come to me and say they want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say you're fired.
TOMASSONI: It was Romney's best performance yet, says Mark McKinnon.
MARK MCKINNON: Well, more focused, more forceful. And what's the difference? Brett O'Donnell is there.
TOMASSONI: McKinnon was a top adviser to President George W. Bush. He worked closely with O'Donnell starting in 2004 when he was brought on to help prep Bush for debates.
MCKINNON: I mean, Brett's the only guy I know in the business who actually has that kind of formal training and background.
TOMASSONI: For nearly 20 years, the Fort Belvoir, Virginia native trained the best college debate team in the country at his alma mater, Liberty University, in Lynchburg. He spent 80-hour weeks and months away from his family gearing up for debates. During his tenure, the team won more than a dozen national championships.
NOEL YATES: Here we were from Liberty, this smaller Christian school, and we were able to go out and compete against the likes of the Naval Academy. And not only were we able to compete, we were able to win.
TOMASSONI: That's Noel Yates. She started on O'Donnell's team as a freshman in the early '90s knowing nothing about debate. But she learned quickly under O'Donnell's direction.
YATES: He taught us to think clear but to think fast.
TOMASSONI: Like Romney did when Gingrich accused him of being anti-immigrant.
ROMNEY: Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive.
TOMASSONI: Liberty University's current debate coach, Michael Hall, says O'Donnell excelled at sensing what each of his students needed.
MICHAEL HALL: Some students need someone who's going to be more passionate and kind of fire them up, and then other students need someone who's going to calm them down and kind of help them get through some of the nerves that they're going to have right at the very beginning of a debate.
TOMASSONI: Hall won't speculate on what specific style O'Donnell is using with Romney other than the basics: preparation and confidence. Both were apparent during the Jacksonville debate. This time, when asked about his finances, Romney did not shy away.
ROMNEY: I'm proud of being successful. I'm proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I'm not going to run from that. I'm proud of the taxes I pay.
TOMASSONI: Romney has been through nearly two dozen debates, just this election cycle, which means O'Donnell probably doesn't deserve all the credit. But given his personality, McKinnon says O'Donnell would be the last person to take the credit anyway. Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News.
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