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Ed Pilkington in New York, Monday 27th August 2012 22:44
Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who was a front-runner for the job of Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate until he was pipped to the post by the tea party favourite Paul Ryan, has agreed to play another crucial role in the Republican race for the White House – that of Barack Obama.
Portman has signed up to play-act Obama in debate prep sessions ahead of the televised clashes between Romney and the president. He will act as Romney's sparring partner over the next few weeks, allowing the candidate to test his debating form before he faces the real Obama in front of real TV lights.
In doing so, Portman will revive a role he assumed in 2008 when he helped the then Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, prepare for his TV debates with Obama.
The position, first reported by CNN, confirms Portman as the supreme debate prepper of his generation on the Republican side. In addition to playing Obama in sessions with McCain four years ago, he assumed the role of John Edwards in practice sessions with Dick Cheney ahead of the 2004 vice-presidential debate, as well as Joe Lieberman and Al Gore.
Doug Holtz-Eakin, former chief economic policy adviser to McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, sat in on several of the prep sessions in which Portman played Obama. Eakin told the Guardian that he combined deep political knowledge with an innate acting ability which was invaluable practice for McCain ahead of the real thing.
"He's a phenomenal actor. He didn't just know Obama's policy positions – he played him," Eakin said.
Rick Lazio turned to Portman for help in preparing for three televised debates with Hillary Clinton during the race for the New York senate seat in 2000. Lazio said that Portman threw himself at the task, immersing himself in Clinton's mannerisms and political convictions until he played her perfectly.
Portman did everything it took to get the characterisation right, Lazio told the Guardian, short of dressing up. "He never wore a dress or a wig. He didn't go that far."
Lazio calls Portman "the quintessential debate prep expert". He was supremely good at the job, Lazio says, primarily because he took it so seriously.
"He will spend countless hours listening and watching tapes of the person he is supposed to be playing. He is incredibly dedicated preparer."
The power of televised debates to make or break candidates was made evident in the very first event of its kind. The debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in September 1960, in which Nixon appeared sweaty and ill-at-ease, is widely credited as having put Kennedy in the White House.
Since then the job of preparing for the ordeal has developed into a central part of any presidential campaign. With it, the role of the sparring partner has similarly gained in prominence.
In Obama's case, he will be calling on John Kerry, who made a failed bid for the presidency in 2004, to take on the role of Romney in his prep sessions. Three televised presidential debates have been scheduled this year, all during October, as well as one vice-presidential debate between the sitting VP Joe Biden and Ryan.
Lazio said that Portman's strength as a debate prepper is that he had the ability to mimic the cadence and rhythm of a politician's voice and the pace and punch of their answers. That helped Lazio keep cool when he came to face the real Hillary Clinton in the flesh in front of the cameras.
"I've done debate prep myself and know how hard it is. It's not something you can just do. It requires the ability to think on your feet, and to get into the head of a person," Lazio said.