The man behind the scenes deals with unusual convention

Hurricane Gustav has made his job as director of podium operations for the Republican National Convention more difficult, but Patrick O’Donnell isn’t worried that the sudden changes in the schedule will be more than he can handle.  

After all, he’s been the man behind the scenes at the last four GOP conventions, coordinating the ebb and flow of activities that determine what television viewers see — an all-important task that can help or hurt his party’s ticket in November. In fact, he’s worked at every convention since 1972, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was still in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

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O’Donnell, a partner in the Washington law firm of Squire Sanders, is in charge of “everything from soup to nuts” as he and his staff of four work with the Office of Official Proceedings to make sure speakers have a chance to practice using the teleprompter, get to the arena on time and are present in a holding area well in advance of their appearance.

“We stroke ‘em and keep ‘em happy,” the genial O’Donnell said as he readied for Monday’s truncated opening session, and prepared to welcome first lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain as last-minute additions. And that’s what he’ll do when McCain’s surprise choice as a running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), is expected to accept the vice presidential nomination on Wednesday.

“I’ll bring her out and take her through a dry run and make sure she’s comfortable with the teleprompter,” he said. “That’s going to be one hell of an important speech and we’re going to make sure we do everything we can to help her.”

Although he receives no pay, only expenses, for working 12-to-14-hour days before and during the convention, O’Donnell isn’t complaining, because he knows his job will pay off in other ways.

“If I was charging clients for the time I spend here, I’d be making a lot of money,” he said. “There’s a lot of politics and procedures and policy mix here, which I love. And the best thing is that it gets my card stamped. You’ve got to keep your face out front or they’ll forget you in a blink.”

It’s unlikely that Sen. McCain will forget O’Donnell if he’s elected president. In 1972, O’Donnell accompanied McCain’s father, a Navy admiral, when he campaigned as a surrogate for Richard Nixon, and he’s known Sen. McCain for years. In fact, O’Donnell’s father was a four-star general in the Air Force.

As for the rest of the 2008 GOP convention, O’Donnell is ready for whatever happens. “I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, but I’m going full speed ahead,” he said.