Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Romney's sparring partner offers glimpse into GOP debate prep

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
  • Portman has portrayed Obama in Romney's debate preparations
  • Ohio senator has acted as Democratic candidate in mock debates since 2000
  • "He can really make you believe he's Barack Obama," GOP debate coach says
  • Romney adviser says mock debates are so intense, they had to build in time to decompress

Follow Wednesday's presidential debate coverage starting at 7 p.m. ET on CNN TV, and via CNN's apps for iPhone, iPad and Android. Web users can become video editors with a new clip-and-share feature that allows them to share favorite debate moments on Facebook and Twitter.

(CNN) -- Republican Sen. Rob Portman gets so into character playing Barack Obama during debate prep that his performance four years ago sparring with then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain made his wife, Cindy, run out of the room crying.

"Part of your responsibility in these debates is to be tougher so the candidate you are helping is ready for the worst of it -- so you have to be mean. You need to get under their skin. Sometimes the candidate you are working with doesn't appreciate it, and even more often, their family doesn't appreciate it," Portman told CNN in an exclusive interview.

Portman is the Republicans' go-to sparring partner for mock presidential debates. Since 2000, he has played the roles of Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and Barack Obama.

5 things to watch in tonight's debate

Portman was careful not to discuss his current debate prep with Mitt Romney, since it is ongoing. Still, he said he has never agreed to an interview about his recurring Democratic role, until now.

Portman said he spends hours reading, studying and watching everything he can get his hands on to best embody Democrats and to prepare Republicans for debates.

What to expect at presidential debate
Portman on RNC speeches and mock debates
Debate body language speaks volumes
Comebacks, zingers can impact debates

Though he declined to portray his Obama imitation, those who have seen it say it is uncanny.

"He gets the style down, he gets the substance down, and he can really make you believe that he's Barack Obama," said Brett O'Donnell, a GOP debate coach who has worked with Portman over the years.

"He works very hard to understand every line of argument that the president might make and between those two characteristics, there isn't anyone better," O'Donnell said.

GOP sources say Portman's no-holds-barred style has been especially important during his countless hours with the former Massachusetts governor, since Romney sources admit one of his potential weak spots is becoming overly defensive, which can result in a gaffe.

A Romney adviser tells CNN his mock debates with Portman have gotten so intense that they make a point to build in breaks for him to decompress with his family.

Inside Romney's mock debates, which began a month ago at a friend's home in rural Vermont, aides say they do their best to create what spokesman Kevin Madden calls "game-day conditions."

That means practicing the best way to talk policy, but also making sure the room is set to feel as close to the real thing as possible: two podiums and a moderator, played by longtime Romney adviser Peter Flaherty. Members of Romney's inner circle, including Beth Myers, Stuart Stevens and Ed Gillespie, then dissect the answers and look for areas of improvement.

In debates, presidential candidates' tics and tells matter

O'Donnell says it's impossible to underestimate the importance of the psychological aspect of debate prep.

"There's three things that you have to do to prepare a candidates: they have to know the policy material, they have to know the answers to the questions. The second thing is they have to know the strategy and how to execute it. But the third thing and probably the most important is they have to be mentally prepared.

"It's just like preparing an athlete, if they're not mentally prepared for the worst of the worst then something will take them by surprise and so those mock debates are extremely important because I look at it like a batter in the on deck circle, they swing a heavy bat or a bat with a weight on it so that when they get in the batter's box the bat feels lighter," O'Donnell explained.

Part of the prep is not just what Romney says; it's how he acts and reacts.

Portman remembers preparing to play Al Gore in mock debates with George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, and noticing that Gore got unusually physically close to his opponent, Bill Bradley.

So Portman, acting as Gore, invaded Bush's personal space during rehearsal.

"Governor Bush's reaction was, 'He is not going to do that, that is ridiculous,' and sure enough in that last debate, which was the one we were prepping for, Al Gore did just that. I saw Governor Bush smile. I wonder if he was smiling saying 'Darn, Portman was right' or if he was just smiling at Al Gore, but he handled it well," Portman recalled.

O'Donnell, who was brought into the Romney campaign after a few underwhelming debate performances during the GOP primaries, says the candidate is extremely responsive to critiques.

John King: Debate all about trust for Romney

"He is a great student of political debate. He works very hard at it, so I think that he is absolutely coachable. He was able to do things across the debates, change a strategy, that let him win a majority of these debates," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell considers the CNN debate in Jacksonville, Florida, one of Romney's great debate moments -- when Newt Gingrich refused to criticize Romney about lacking transparency as the former speaker had so often done on the campaign trail.

Romney jumped in and asked, "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they aren't willing to defend here?"

"It took Gingrich's argument and showed the absurdity in one line," O'Donnell said. "It created a moment in the debate where through one line, he could capture the imagination of the press, capture the imagination of the audience, and make a point -- make a strong point that crystallized that entire debate in one line, and that's what Governor Romney has to be looking for now," O'Donnell said.

GOP sources say Romney has been working up a few one liners to get his points across, but O'Donnell also said he hoped the Romney campaign isn't also practicing "zingers" as The New York Times reported over the weekend.

"It's not about zingers," O'Donnell said.

"A zinger might be just something funny, a comedic line, something to sort of break the monotony of the debate to try and capture the imagination," he said. "It's something that's sort of shoehorned into the debate.

"But a good line, Reagan's line about his opponent's youth and age, not making that an issue, a good line is a substantive line that does capture the imagination of the press and the audience, to overrun and deliver the message that you want and do it at the expense of your opponent."

Ann Romney: 'Dad' is always with Mitt at the debates

Part of complete coverage on
Debates 2012
Your complete guide to the 2012 presidential debates.
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
The final presidential debate proved to be a substantive discussion on the nation's major issues as both candidates tried to persuade the small sliver of undecideds to vote for them.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
The presidential face off on foreign policy was geared to sway U.S. voters, on issues from Libya to Pakistan to China. Netizens, analysts and activists tuned in and weighed in.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
President Barack Obama headed into the final debate of the 2012 campaign with the biggest advantage of all: he's already commander-in-chief.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
Three debates down and two weeks of campaigning to go.
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
The rapid-fire commentary on Twitter turned what could have been dry television into deeply entertaining multi-screen experiences.
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
Pres. Obama and candidate Mitt Romney debate a range of topics on foreign policy in the third presidential debate.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
Moderator Bob Schieffer is CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and has been the host of "Face the Nation" since 1991.
updated 11:54 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
Tom Foreman looks at claims Obama and Romney made about Iran and the country's threatening nuclear capacities.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
The flagging economy has been the clear-cut No. 1 issue for this year's presidential race.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
Three days before Election Day in 2008, John McCain, behind in the polls, guest-starred on "Saturday Night Live."
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Wed October 17, 2012
While Obama and Romney were responding to questions from uncommitted voters at a town hall-style debate, they found plenty of opportunities to attack each other.
updated 11:03 AM EDT, Sat October 13, 2012
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan exchanged fire over taxes, Medicare, national security and some animated facial expressions in their only debate.
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Thu October 4, 2012
By most accounts, Republican challenger Mitt Romney was the clear winner of his first debate with President Barack Obama.
What questions would you like to ask the candidates? Share a short video question.