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The candidate whisperer: The man behind Michele Bachmann

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SHEFFIELD, Iowa — Brett O’Donnell’s short-sleeved plaid shirts and unassuming slouch may seem out of sync with the high-gloss vibe that radiates from Rep. Michele Bachmann these days as well as the red meat of her tea party rhetoric. Bachmann’s glitzy blue bus, blaring Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, is surrounded by advance men in earpieces. Her proxy on the cable news circuit, adviser Ed Rollins, seems to detonate more bombs than he disarms with his all-too-candid assessments of Bachmann’s falling fortunes.

But O’Donnell may be the most potent force on Bachmann’s presidential campaign. His job description is debate coach. But he’s more accurately described as the candidate whisperer, because that’s what he does all day.

There he is, walking through a cavernous grain-bin manufacturer here, leaning in close to remind Bachmann (R-Minn.) to mention the burden of federal regulations, the unfairness of the estate tax and the potentially high cost of the health-care overhaul for the job creators of the country. There he is, entering a retirement community, quietly rattling off Bachmann’s talking points on Medicare and Social Security and, from the news that day, the latest threat to Israel from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

O’Donnell is more than a message man. Best known as the championship-winning debate coach at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., he jumped into politics in 2004, when he helped prepare former president George W. Bush for his relection debates. He played an even more central role in debate prep for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

For Bachmann, O’Donnell has become an inner-circle everyman. He writes speeches, offers coaching, even helps with travel logistics. He is always by Bachmann’s side. She trusts him, in part because of their shared evangelical roots; and he revels in the raw political talent that she brings to the campaign.

“He is by far her closest aide,” said Rollins, Bachmann’s former campaign manager and now a senior adviser. “There’s a comfort zone, and that’s important. Brett fit into that comfort zone, understood a lot of what she comes from, what her belief system is.”

With the exception of Rollins, no one from the Bachmann team — including O’Donnell — would speak on the record for this story.

One reason is O’Donnell’s low-key nature; on the campaign trail, he is almost always at the back of the crowd, studying Bachmann’s performance while she works the room and while other operatives chat with reporters.

But another reason is the desire not to upstage Bachmann. The campaign is sensitive to the temptation in Washington — where Bachmann, founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus, is still viewed very much as an outsider — to give credit to someone else. As one Republican operative said, “Bachmann has done better than I would have thought she would. And I would give Brett credit.”

Yet it’s not so simple as O’Donnell transforming Bachmann into a debate-ready machine. He is known in the industry for working with the natural abilities of his clients rather than doing what too many consultants try to do, which is to make a candidate into something he or she is not.

Bachmann is nothing if not a good student, who takes assiduous notes and brings to the task a gift for delivering jazzy lines.

“We need the economy to grow, grow, grow, grow, grow — just like the Iowa corn in the fields!” she shouted to a small group of workers at the grain-bin plant.

Those are the lines that helped Bachmann rise. Her standing may have slipped, and her momentum ebbed, but she will get another shot Thursday night, when she appears with the rest of the field in a nationally televised debate.

O’Donnell will be there, coaching her all day, carrying briefing notebooks around and firing practice questions. All night, he will watch from the wings in the hopes that her performance will, once again, keep her in the game.

Debates “are often the best and sometimes only shot to make a broad impression,” said Mark McKinnon, an adviser to both Bush and McCain. “Michele Bachmann used her first debate to break out of the pack and win the Iowa straw poll. And during the last debate, she furiously attacked Rick Perry at every turn with great discipline and got herself back on the map. And I assume Brett gets a good degree of credit for both.”

At a meat-packing plant in Des Moines this week, where Bachmann walked among giant sides of beef and sliced a few ribeyes for the local news broadcasts, O’Donnell stood where he always does, at the back of the crowd, watching and listening intently. Bachmann called President Obama’s newest jobs plan the “son of stimulus,” and O’Donnell nodded approvingly.

But he won’t take credit for the line. Asked if it was his, O’Donnell smiled for a moment and gently said, “Sssshh, listen,” while pointing back to Bachmann, the real star of the show.

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