Over the past year, Mitt Romney has debated 19 times, but until this month he has never prepared by holding a mock debate. During the Republican primary, Romney’s prep sessions consisted mostly of wonky conversations with his advisers. Now, with the first presidential debate less than three weeks away, Romney is shaking up his practice routine by sparring several times a week with a stand-in for President Obama.
“Live practice is the best way to prepare,” says Brett O’Donnell, a Romney debate adviser during the primary. “It helps to build confidence, and that’s the most important part of debate prep. It’s just like in athletics: You want to sharpen the various skills, but you really want to ensure they are confident once they’re under the bright lights.”
Since the Republican National Convention concluded, Romney has frequently traveled to a secluded, 134-acre estate in West Windsor, Vt., for a series of intense rehearsals. The Vermont home, which is owned by Romney’s former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, does not have a television, and cell-phone reception is spotty. According to a Romney adviser, the setting is ideal since it keeps the press at bay and distractions to a minimum.
A tight group of aides attends the meetings, which start early in the morning (Romney is an early riser) and last until the evening. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s senior strategist, oversees the sessions and often banters with Romney about his message, his pace, and his phrasing. Other top advisers, such as Ed Gillespie, Eric Fehrnstrom, and Beth Myers, do the same. Lanhee Chen, who holds four degrees from Harvard, guides on policy.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who is close with Stevens, plays the Obama role. He and Romney sit across from each other for hours, acting out various debate scenarios. Peter Flaherty, a Romney adviser and former prosecutor, usually plays the moderator. Playing the president comes relatively easy for Portman. Four years ago, when Senator John McCain was preparing for his debates, he tapped Portman to play the Illinois Democrat.
Early this month, during the first dry runs, Portman reportedly went hard at Romney and purposely tried to test the governor’s patience and skills. Aides say Romney appreciated the “hardball” approach, as one describes Portman’s style. Romney has always been well versed on the issues, but dealing with an aggressive opponent or moderator can throw him off.
“One of the things we learned [during the primary] was that he doesn’t like to be attacked,” says David Carney, a former strategist for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. “His body language was obvious. He needs to be careful about showing his emotions on the negative side, to make sure his frustration about certain questions doesn’t show.”
Some confidants within Romney’s circle were initially concerned that he would tire of mock debates, since he prefers talking through issues. But Portman has kept Romney at ease, a person familiar with the sessions says. The Ohio senator spent weeks preparing for the meetings and reviewing tapes of Obama speeches and debates. His ability to uncannily mimic Obama’s mannerisms has kept Romney’s interest, sources say.
“Senator Portman is invaluable,” O’Donnell says. “When we worked with him during the McCain campaign in 2008, he was able to capture the style and the substance of Obama. He is able to make the candidate believe that it’s the opponent, and not just an exercise.”
Speaking in Tampa last month, Portman noted that his Obama persona in the Romney sessions is less lofty than it was with McCain. “I think there is a different Barack Obama this year,” he said. Whereas Obama famously blasted McCain for using “scare tactics,” Portman believes that it’s Romney, not Obama, who can make that charge this year.
The first debate will be held on October 3 at the University of Denver. Jim Lehrer of PBS will moderate. Two weeks later, the second debate will be a town hall at Hofstra University in New York, and CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate. The third and final debate will be on October 22 at Lynn University in Florida, focused on foreign policy and moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
Carney thinks Romney will be ready. “Candidates need to take preparation seriously, and Romney and his team are doing that,” he says. “Debate prep is not issue prep. You do that ahead of time, and Romney has been doing that for a year. Right now, it’s all about deciding what their objectives are, and figuring out what two or three points they want him to emphasize.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.