Politics has revealed that Governor Mitt Romney has let go of his newly appointed debate coach Brett O’Donnell. Campaign insiders and followers alike attributed the change in course to the Romney campaign’s growing uneasiness that the “debate coach” was getting too much credit for the apparent reversal in the campaign’s fortunes. This move by the Romney campaign marks an unfortunate and unwise decision.
Viewers of the Florida Republican Primary on January 26th could not help but be impressed by the new and improved debate skills of Governor Romney. He was a much different debater on that evening in Jacksonville: calm, confident and competent in his command of topical knowledge. Organized and unflustered, he was perceived as credible, and his message was cogent and convincing. He was able to surprise Speaker Gingrich, even disarm him. It was impressive.
What made that performance so striking was that less than one week prior to that debate — in another Republican primary debate in South Carolina — Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made very short work of Governor Romney, even embarrassing him on stage. The debate in South Carolina dramatically shifted the polls in Gingrich’s favor overnight. That debate performance when combined with Romney’s defeat at the ballot box almost made South Carolina the Governor’s Waterloo.
You should know that O’Donnell is one of the most unassuming and humble collegiate debate coaches you’ll ever meet. You would never guess that O’Donnell built Liberty University into the powerhouse college debate program that they are today. You would never know that he worked as the debate coach for the presidential campaigns of both Senator McCain and Representative Michele Bachmann.
You also might miss the deeper significance in Dr. O’Donnell’s brief coaching relationship with Governor Romney. At a time in which religion and religious affiliation of presidential candidates are being whispered about in the corridors of Washington as well as the living rooms of America, it was poignant that Governor Romney’s debate coach was a distinguished faculty member at the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. O’Donnell worked closely with Falwell, once regarded a kingmaker among politicians, and knows the political terrain well and how to navigate it.
O’Donnell’s coaching was more than a political advantage; it was the foundation upon which an alliance could be forged to bridge a divide among Republicans. As a Roman Catholic who was raised in Michigan by parents who have fond memories of the late Governor George W. Romney, I like to see examples of cooperative religious pluralism. And, I am not alone on that question, many Americans do.
In nearly 20 years of coaching intercollegiate debate, I can tell you that some debaters really are born and not made. But they are few in number, and Governor Romney, for all of his success, can’t be counted among them. He needs good coaching, and he will need it soon as the Republican primary debates resume on February 22nd in Mesa, Arizona. He is going to be hard pressed to find a higher quality debate adviser than O’Donnell, and time is short. Newt Gingrich is most certainly taking the long view on his campaign and looking forward to the rematch.
Omar G. Guevara is the Head Coach of Weber State’s nationally recognized debate team and works as a faculty member in the Department of Communication.