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A candidate who hires a rhetoric coach is a candidate who needs one

We now know that, for the last two years, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens, has employed a rhetoric coach as a member of his congressional staff.

Brett O’Donnell is paid by contract, in compliance with U.S. House rules, the congressman says. Here’s the official explanation from Broun’s U.S. Senate campaign:

“[O’Donnell] provides training… with public speaking, on-camera interviews, and media appearances so that Dr. Broun can best communicate his legislative priorities, issues, and message with his constituents.”

O’Donnell is no slouch, and his conservative credentials are impeccable. He was the star debate coach at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He served as an adviser to Michele Bachmann during her 2012 run for the White House. George W. Bush and Mitt Romney have summoned O’Donnell for debate prep.

If you like, you can get yourself worked up over the use of more than $33,000 in taxpayer funds by a candidate who claims to be the biggest budget-slasher in the GOP field. But after you’re done, also think about what this bit of news tells us about Paul Broun.

First of all, it underlines the fact that Broun hasn’t been a stellar fundraiser, either as a candidate for the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate. Checks written to an elocution strategist may not break House rules, but most politicians would prefer to hide such things in the recesses of a campaign finance disclosure.

Broun apparently didn’t have that option. The trees in his fundraising forest have been too sparse to hide anything.

More significantly, the hiring of a debate coach tells us that Broun knows his own weakness in this statewide contest: The man who many tea partyers want to see in the U.S. Senate – and the man Democrats are cheering as a perfect opponent for Michelle Nunn — is no natural firebrand in the style of Ted Cruz.

It is perhaps no accident that, in one of Broun’s more effective Internet ads, these words are superimposed on a screen: “Should House Republicans surrender on amnesty for illegals or raising the debt ceiling?”

Broun then walks in front of the question, and utters a single word: “No.” End of commercial.

The congressman from Athens is an indefatigable campaigner. One-on-one with voters, he has a physician’s soft touch. But four GOP senatorial debates – a fifth will be held in Savannah next week – have revealed a candidate who hasn’t yet found the words he needs to reach a broader Republican audience. They often escape his lips rushed and slightly slurred.

Kerwin Swint, a political scientist, was on the panel of inquisitors when the Republican Senate candidates came to his Kennesaw State University campus in February. He noted Broun’s on-stage discomfort. “It sounds canned, as if he’s reciting lines from memory,” Swint said.

The KSU professor picked out U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue as the most effective stump-speakers in the seven-person field.

You can see Broun experiment with phrasing intended to keep his passionate, small-government adherents happy – without frightening Chamber of Commerce centrists. It can be baffling.

“The only way we’ll have…liberty is if we put the dragon that is the big government in its cell. The cell bars are the enumerated powers of the Constitution,” Broun theorized at the Gainesville debate.

Christine Hardman, spokeswoman for the Broun campaign, says the GOP debates haven't been the proper place to measure her candidate’s rhetorical skills. “At debates, what we see is other candidates corrupting Dr. Broun’s message,” Hardman said. “It’s a different challenge when other candidates are saying things that you’ve been saying all along.”

An inability to communicate in a relaxed manner with large crowds isn’t necessarily a show-stopper. Ask Al Gore.

We still don’t know much about Democrat Michelle Nunn’s ability to stir a crowd. But Nunn will have several million dollars help to make her case. Broun does not – and no Super PAC has yet stepped in to provide a megaphone. For him, personal encounters with persuadable crowds will be crucial.

While no Demosthenes, Broun is capable of firing up an audience. In 2012, with his rhetoric coach freshly hired, Broun appeared at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga.

The event was videotaped and soon went viral – courtesy of liberal groups who focused on Broun’s declaration that he considered evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory to be “lies from the pit of hell.”

But if you watch the entire 47-minute video, you will see a Paul Broun who speaks with nary a misstep throughout his address. Not a stutter, slur or misplaced metaphor as he talks of his journey from scientist to Biblicist, of hunting bears in Alaska, and killing lions on the Serengeti.

“He was in tune with his audience. He was very much a believer in what he was saying,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who sat at Broun’s table that night.

The video is a reminder that the candidate we’re seeing now is a self-edited one. But the primary is now exactly two months away. At some point, there will be demands to unleash the real Paul Broun. The question is whether those calls will come from Democrats – or Broun’s supporters.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.