Dec 5, 2006

Liberty's O'Donnell to work on McCain campaign

by Jenni Thurman

Brett O’Donnell stepped back into the political limelight when Sen. John McCain tapped O’Donnell, the director of Liberty’s debate team, to be an adviser on his exploratory committee for a 2008 run at the presidency.

The offer transpired when Mark McKinnon, a media adviser who worked alongside O’Donnell with President George W. Bush in 2004, recommended him to McCain.

“I did some work informally for McCain’s staff in May. At that point they offered me a position in the campaign,” he said.

“I thought about it long and hard and talked to Dr. Falwell, and I decided to take it.”

As a communications strategist for the campaign, O’Donnell will assist in determining the potential for McCain to run for president in 2008.

“Chief among my duties will be preparing the senator for candidate forums and debates. There are a multitude of candidate forums, the very first in May 2007,” he said.

O’Donnell has already begun working with McCain on tactics for the 2008 presidential elections.
 “Over the summer I wrote some floor speeches for the senator. I have been consulting on various policy decisions and involved in strategic discussions for the campaign,” he said.

O’Donnell will move to Washington, D.C., in preparation for January 8, his first official day on the job.

McCain’s stance on gay  marriage, stem cell research and immigration has stirred up controversy among select Liberty students.

A group of those students protested during the senator’s commencement speech at Liberty in 2006.
However, O’Donnell is quick to point out that many conservative Christians have incorrectly labeled McCain as a moderate.

“Senator McCain is with social conservatives and the religious right on almost every policy issue,” he said.

“For instance, Senator McCain firmly believes marriage should be between one man and one woman. He just thinks we need to approach the issue differently.”

O’Donnell also cited McCain’s steadfast position on abortion as a reason why conservative Christians should trust the senator, whom O’Donnell describes as a “Ronald Reagan conservative.”

“John McCain has a 100 percent reliable voting record on pro-life issues. Many people have admired him for his consistency on issues and the fact that he will stand up for what he believes in,” he said.

Although O’Donnell is ecstatic at the opportunity to work with McCain, he must endure the bittersweet sentiment of leaving behind the Liberty debate team – a legacy he has nurtured for 17 years.

“This was a very difficult decision for me. Liberty debate has been my life, apart from my family, but I feel very confident that the team will move forward in a positive direction,” he said.

O’Donnell hopes to attend his team’s tournaments in the Washington area and is adamant that he does not want to sever ties with the Liberty debate team.

“It’s not like I’m closing the door and turning out the lights. I’m going to continue to use whatever outlets I can to continue fostering the growth of this team,” he said.

Glen Koch, a senior and captain of the Liberty debate team, stressed the major role O’Donnell has played in the debate team’s success.

“Brett has been the backbone of this team. He is so important for the logistics of the team, but we are happy for him. This is a big jump for him with the McCain campaign, and we hope to have him back when he is done,” said Koch.

“It will be a significant loss. Brett is an amazing organizer and public relations man. He makes events fun and worthwhile to attend. It’s a sad thing, but we will have to go on,” said junior debater Chase McCool.

Senior Nate Baldis elaborated on O’Donnell’s importance to the team financially, as the debate team’s budget has grown to over $500,000 under O’Donnell’s watch.

“Brett is fantastic at managing money and making sure the team has the resources we need. We appreciate what he has done for the team, and we will miss him in that regard,” said Baldis.

The Liberty debate team made history last season by winning all three national rankings championships, a feat which no other team had previously accomplished.

Michael Hall, the current assistant director of debate, will take the place of O’Donnell as he assumes the role of the new acting director of debate in January.

“It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of someone like Brett. It’s a nervous excitement,” said Hall.

The long-term goal for Liberty’s debate team has been to build the quality of the varsity squad, which has struggled in national competition. Hall plans to persist in furthering that objective.

“We want to continue winning championships, but we also want to strengthen our varsity teams so we can have a two-person team that can win the National Debate Tournament,” said Hall.

Despite losing a mentor in Brett O’Donnell, the coaching staff is confident that Hall will be an influential new leader in the debate team’s ongoing quest to win national championships.

“I think we are pretty lucky in having Michael Hall as the new acting director. He knows the administrative aspect of the team, and because of that I don’t think there will be any dropoff in team performance at all,” said John Nagy, associate debate coach.

With his debate team in the hands of Hall, O’Donnell is ready to focus his sights on Capitol Hill.
Despite the exhilaration surrounding his new position on McCain’s campaign, O’Donnell expressed an element of nervousness.

“The campaign has extremely high expectations of what they think I can do for them and I think it’s good. I think it’s always good to have a little anxiousness because it keeps you on your toes.”
With McCain considered one of the frontrunners for the Repub-lican candidate nomination, O’Donnell is aware of the stakes.

“This is an extremely important election. We are in the middle of a war and there is going to be, in my opinion, a clear choice in the 2008 presidential campaign that could drastically affect the direction our country takes,” he said.

O’Donnell is quick to acknowledge that without God, the opportunity to work with the McCain campaign may never have emerged.

“This is a new direction for me. It gives me an opportunity to do something I have always dreamed of doing,” he said. “God has really been opening doors. It amazes me where I find myself, considering where I came from. I feel very honored to be tapped for this and very blessed.”

Contact Jenni Thurman at jthurman@liberty.edu.

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