Debate impressions: Big Bird and body language

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by Jocelyn Noveck

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Is Big Bird the new Joe the Plumber?

The “Sesame Street” character, its bright yellow fluffiness suddenly evoked by Mitt Romney during Wednesday’s debate, was certainly a star of the evening, garnering a wave of support on social networks and countless affectionate tweets.

showdown
SHOWDOWN IN DENVER–Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Oct. 3, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

But other than that, it was a night of few memorable sound bites and few zingers. Instead, the format made it a more detailed, substantive evening than usual, most analysts said. And though not all were ready to declare a knockout winner, it was clear that a sharp Romney performance had given the candidate a much-needed boost and put a more reserved president somewhat on the defensive — but with two upcoming debates to tweak his technique.

The AP asked a group of experts in political communication and body language for their impressions of the evening:

PRACTICE HELPS

If practice, practice, practice gets you to Carnegie Hall, it can also help you if you’re lagging in the presidential polls.

Romney had participated in 19 debates during the primaries, and all that practice showed, said Jerry Shuster, who teaches political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. “It definitely helped him,” Shuster said. “He was comfortable, relaxed. It wasn’t a knockout punch, but Romney clearly held his own and showed that he could compete on an even field with the president.”

bigbird
ENDANGERED–Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama. Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

The challenger was also helped by expectations that Obama would be the better debater — expectations eagerly fed by the Romney campaign beforehand. “I think people just assumed Obama would be a lot more skilled, a lot more dynamic than Romney, which wasn’t really the case,” Shuster said.

THE BODY TALKS (EVEN WHEN IT’S LISTENING)

In Obama’s case, his nonverbal cues were less forceful and convincing than those of the challenger, said one body language expert. If you had turned off the sound, said Lillian Glass, you would have seen a forceful Romney expressing passion and enthusiasm with his gestures and posture, and the incumbent looking less animated, said Glass, who works in Los Angeles coaching both politicians and actors in body language.

The difference was apparent not only when the candidates were talking, but when they were listening, she noted — not an unimportant chunk of time, because most of the time, viewers saw both candidates simultaneously on split screens.

“You could see Obama looking down a lot, pursing his lips,” said Glass, author of the upcoming “Body Language Advantage.” ”He also did not look directly at his opponent, as Romney did.”

Why did Obama seem more reserved in general? “My guess is Obama’s advisers said, ‘Don’t attack. Not presidential,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, speculated on Twitter.

SMILE NEXT TIME

For another student of body language, the smile was an important barometer of a candidate’s ability to appear warm and authentic, and in this case, Obama came out ahead.

“When he smiled — and maybe it didn’t happen enough — that smile lit up Obama’s whole face, and appeared very genuine,” said Karen Studd, who teaches movement analysis at George Mason University in Virginia. She said his passion was especially apparent when he spoke of his 20th wedding anniversary with wife Michelle.

Romney lost on that point, Studd said. “He smiled a lot, but it didn’t look very happy — almost a scowl,” she said.

On the whole, though, Romney came out ahead because he projected more clarity, and Obama may have been hurt by his tendency to think for a bit before answering a question, Studd said.

“Obama’s style is more impactful, less impulsive,” she said.

SPEAKING OF SMILING …

Usually a debate has a couple good laughs, or at least lines you’ll remember a long time — like Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. This debate had hardly any, though Obama did get in a dig at Donald Trump when he said sarcastically that according to Romney, Trump would be a small businessman, adding that Trump wouldn’t want to think of himself as a small ANYTHING.

Romney also had a fairly amusing reference to his five sons, saying that made him “used to people saying something that’s not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it.”

If there were few funny lines, there were also no real gaffes, as in Al Gore’s distracted sigh or George H.W. Bush’s infamous glance at his watch.

But Romney did unwittingly unleash countless laughs across cyberspace when he made his surprise reference to Big Bird, saying to PBS’s Jim Lehrer, the moderator, that he would cut the government subsidy to the public broadcasting network — even though he was fond of Big Bird.

One thing was clear from the many thousands of tweets speculating on Big Bird’s fate: The yellow creature with the high-pitched voice had become the star of the night, rivaling Joe the Plumber from the 2008 campaign.

WHERE’S THE BEEF? ACTUALLY, IT WAS THERE

For political communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, it was the debate’s format, not the body language, that was significant — and heartening. “This debate was substantive and informative,” said Jamieson, of the University of Pennsylvania. “The differences between the candidates were clear. It focused a lot of attention on a limited number of areas; learning will be high from this debate.”

And while she hesitated to come right out and pick a winner, she noted that Romney had “benefited dramatically from the evening.” She added, though, that it’s always harder for the incumbent, because there are four years of a record to attack, whereas the incumbent has less to work with.

Jamieson, a veteran analyst of debates, also was pleased with the tone of the night.

“There weren’t nasty little asides to score points,” she said. “It was an extremely respectful and polite evening.”

Unless, of course, you’re a big fluffy bird that could be out of a job.

Follow AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at http://twitter/JocelynNoveckAP.

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