Some voters hear body language of candidates clearly

Hints of intent, character can be communicated

At the GOP debate in Iowa on Wednesday, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney traded some good-natured barbs in the sort of humanizing moment that some analysts say appeals to voters. At the GOP debate in Iowa on Wednesday, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney traded some good-natured barbs in the sort of humanizing moment that some analysts say appeals to voters. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

The talking heads gab about front-runners and wannabes, attacks made and deflected, answers carefully parsed. But when Newbury Street hairstylist Mario Russo watches the Democratic presidential debates, he looks at something different: body language.

Senator Hillary Clinton carries herself with an uncanny stillness, Russo said: "She pretty much keeps the same stance all the way through. It's almost as if she's set in clay." Senator Barack Obama, now rising in the polls, "is much more animated and open . . . He gestures with his whole upper body." It's a sign of personality and confidence, Russo said. "I think it influences people a great deal."

In Kingston, N.H., retired engineer Bob Morse said he has watched Republican debates with a similar goal: finding subtle signals of character and intent. He thinks Rudy Giuliani seems to want the job of president, that Fred Thompson seems to want it handed to him, that Mitt Romney wants it so badly that it's becoming a bit of a problem.

"I feel a little disconnected," Morse said of Romney's debate performances. "I feel like I'm getting a political, well-thought-out, politically correct answer or statement, rather than what's on his mind."

It goes to show what challenges the candidates have faced as they have approached each presidential debate: They've had to hone their messages, stake out their positions, but also come across as accessible and human. And in this candidate-filled, schedule-challenged political season, they've had to do it more often than usual. Between the two political parties, candidates have taken part in 22 debates this year, including this week's midday debates in Johnston, Iowa, sponsored by the Des Moines Register - the final two debates before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

For most Americans, these debates function largely as background noise, filtered through the media. According to Nielsen ratings, debate viewership has ranged from less than 1 million to more than 4.4 million - strong numbers by cable news standards, but nothing approaching the popularity of a hit television show.

To some extent, analysts say, the voters aren't missing much. "You can look at this cycle of debates as really too much of a good thing," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington in Virginia and coauthor of "The Nightly News Nightmare," a book about presidential campaign coverage.

"With such a large number of debates, what you end up with is something approaching NASCAR coverage of these debates," Farnsworth said. "You're looking to see a little blood being shed or maybe a car crash."

Yet repetition also has a way of burnishing an image. And over the course of the debates, Farnsworth said, some themes have become clear. By hewing to a well-honed script, for example, Romney has largely staved off concerns that he's not conservative enough for Republican primary voters.

Other candidates have struggled, with little success, to use the debates to gain relevance from the sidelines. (Farnsworth's message for Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul, two sometimes-abrasive contenders: "Ultimately, the way to win is not to be the skunk at the garden party.") And some candidates have seemed so scripted that they have risked losing ground on the matter of approachability.

Dennis Kalob, a Democratic sociology professor from Henniker, N.H., said he doesn't like the way Clinton has responded to attacks from her political foes. "She's really playing it ultrasafe," Kalob said, and has increasingly carried herself "like a caricature of a wishy-washy politician."

And while his politics might jibe most with Kucinich's, Kalob said, he has been drawn in the debates to John Edwards, who always manages to circle back to his campaign theme of economic injustice. "I'm impressed with John Edwards really sticking to his guns on the class divide," said Kalob, who said he is leaning toward voting for Edwards in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.

Edwards's job in the debates, Farnsworth said, is to find ways to attract attention and insert himself into the postdebate coverage. But he faces an uphill battle, Farnsworth said, because the media still tend to frame the debates as an ongoing battle between Clinton and Obama.

A bigger beneficiary is Obama, who has turned heads with his casual demeanor and easygoing style. Tom Kemp, an actor and acting coach who divides his time between Los Angeles and Milton, said he has been struck by the contrasts between the Obama and Clinton debating styles.

When he coaches actors for auditions, Kemp said, he urges them to imagine they're talking to someone specific, with whom they have an established relationship.

"I think that Obama does that very well and makes people think he is speaking to a peer," Kemp said. "I think Hillary sometimes comes across as a teacher - that I'm the student and she's the teacher."

On the Republican side, Romney has recently managed to capitalize on some humanizing moments. In this week's Des Moines Register debate, Farnsworth said, Romney and Thompson sparred gently and sarcastically about Romney's wealth and Thompson's acting career.

"It was just a couple of politicians who were exchanging a joke," Farnsworth said. "That's the kind of moment that Romney needs about now."

To Morse, the voter from Kingston, the battles themselves are enlightening. Part of what draws him to Giuliani and John McCain, he said, is the way the two men have parried.

"I think it was the tough questions," he said, "and even some of the sparring. I don't expect them to agree, and I don't mind a few not-too-unreasonable challenges. And you see how they react. They're certainly going to get that in the Oval Office."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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