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Morning TV's New Leading Lady

“Well good morning to you as well, Norah,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says to audible chuckles on the air.

It’s July 18, and Norah O’Donnell, CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, has just refuted Pawlenty’s claim on CBS This Morning that Mitt Romney’s release of two years of tax returns is “standard” by enumerating a list of facts, including the point that recent Republican presidential candidates have released 10 to 30 years’ worth of returns. O’Donnell may be just filling in for the week on CTM, but it’s clear she feels at home challenging guests from the anchor desk.

Later that day, over coffee at Essex House on New York’s Central Park South, O’Donnell cited the Pawlently exchange as an example of what she sees as increasingly fewer opportunities for journalists to hold politicians’ feet to the fire—chances she tries to seize.

“I think facts are really important things,” O’Donnell said. “I try myself, personally, to make sure that both candidates get held accountable for what they say and what the facts are.”

The following week, O’Donnell was named to replace Erica Hill as cohost of CBS This Morning, the first full-time anchor job of her 13-year TV career. Chris Licht, CBS News VP of programming and executive producer of CTM, said the way O’Donnell challenged Pawlenty in the interview “kind of blew me away” and reinforced the qualities he first noticed in her Morning Joe appearances when both of them were at MSNBC—her ability to think on her feet and pop off the screen.

While O’Donnell said she has always seen herself more as a reporter than an anchor (though as a 10-year-old, while her father was deployed in Seoul, she helmed a show on Korean public television meant to teach students English), she regards the morning gig as the ideal platform for her strong interviewing skills.

“Ten hours of network TV [per week] is sort of the crown jewel of broadcasting,” O’Donnell said in late July in Los Angeles, having just appeared before the Television Critics Association with fellow CTM cohosts Charlie Rose and Gayle King. “The morning shows are an excellent way to interview the big guests. To be fair and firm and do those big interviews is something I’ve long wanted a bigger platform [for].”

In June 2011, CBS News first came to O’Donnell with an offer she couldn’t turn down when the network lured her away from NBC News, her home for 12 years, to be its chief White House correspondent—a role few women have held, she points out—as well as principal substitute on Face the Nation and contributor to 60 Minutes.

O’Donnell said she is a little sad to leave the White House beat, having covered politics her entire career. She first “caught the bug” as an intern at ABC News’ Washington bureau during her senior year at Georgetown. She went on to a job at Hotline, the online political tipsheet that groomed other top journos like NBC’s Chuck Todd, ABC’s Amy Walter and Politico’s Ben White; she calls it her “crash course in politics.”

But while the mother of three young children already considers herself a morning person, the harder adjustment will be leaving Washington, where her husband owns a chain of restaurants, her kids attend school, and she is involved in charities. At least through the presidential inauguration next January, her family will remain in D.C. and she will commute to New York every week while looking for a place to live.

Those around O’Donnell are confident the professional transition from correspondent to morning anchor will be a seamless one, though.

“Norah naturally likes people, is interested in people, is interested in their stories,” said Ann Compton, ABC News Radio White House correspondent and an early mentor of O’Donnell’s. “And that’s the whole key to morning anchoring— being interested in what’s developing out there and seeing how it relates to the people who are watching.”

After reporting from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week, where O’Donnell is CBS’ podium correspondent, she will transition to her new morning role on Sept. 10, though Licht is not planning anything to get her up to speed.

“As far the mechanics of doing television and hosting the show, she’s already there,” Licht said.

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