By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Barack Obama goes airborne in a doozy of a bear hug with a pizza guy in Florida. Joe Biden cozies up with a biker chick in Ohio. Paul Ryan encircles a campaign supporter in North Carolina in a double-armed embrace. Even the more reserved Mitt Romney seems to be loosening up some with people he meets on the campaign trail.
Kissing babies and slapping backs are so yesterday.
The 2012 candidates are putting their all into the campaign cliche of pressing the flesh.
"America's become more touchy-feely," says Lillian Glass, a body language expert based in Los Angeles. "That's what they want in their candidates, and that's what they're getting."
When 74-year-old Jan Queen locked on to Biden for a hug and kiss in Jackson, Ohio, on Saturday, she didn't budge for a minute or so.
"I told him he was so handsome, so good-looking, that I was not going to let go of him," Queen reported afterward.
"Will you write a note to my wife and tell her that?" Biden asked with a grin.
It was just another friendly campaign schmooze for Biden, the most natural people-person among the four top candidates.
But the vice president raised eyebrows Sunday when he buddied up next to a bandana-and-leather-clad biker at a diner in Seaman, Ohio. In photos of the encounter, it almost looks as if the woman is sitting on Biden's lap, but her chair was just pulled up close to the vice president, who leaned in behind her and put both hands on her shoulders.
The photo and accompanying stories soon went viral as the public and campaign partisans dissected the propriety of the pose.
Plenty of people also were taken aback by images of Obama being hoisted well off the floor when 46-year-old Scott Van Duzer enfolded him in a chest-to-chest bear hug on Sunday.
Obama had stopped in at Van Duzer's pizza place in Fort Pierce, Fla., during a weekend bus trip across the state, and spoke admiringly of the owner's big "guns." It was a reference to the impressive arm muscles on the 6-foot-3 restaurateur, who decided to demonstrate what he —or they — could do by powerlifting the president.
Van Duzer, a Republican, said he voted for Obama in 2008 and will vote for him again this November, adding, "I do feel extremely comfortable with him."
And that's what all this touching and feeling is about — making voters comfortable with the candidates.
The candidates are "going after personal likability," says Glass. "We love genuineness in our politicians, we love that warmth, and we love somebody that we can relate to."
Politicians have always tried to connect with voters. Kissing babies has long been a campaign requirement. People like to see passion in their candidates.
Al Gore's long smooch with wife Tipper after his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 led some people to look at him in a new light.
Romney, for his part, delivered a more standard bye-honey-see-you-tonight kiss on his wife's lips on his convention stage this year.
But he does seem more at ease now than back during the primaries, when he rather awkwardly pretended that a waitress at a New Hampshire diner had goosed him.
Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, says the GOP nominee seems more spontaneous in his recent interactions with voters. "And that's something he needs to do," says Shuster, "to take away the rap on him that he's cold and aloof from the audience."
Romney's running mate is a more physical campaigner.
When Ryan is announced to a crowd, he often shakes hands and gives high-fives and quick hugs to folks who press up against the waist-high metal barriers that hold back the audience. After events, he lingers, posing for pictures, hugging anyone who wants his embrace, often using both hands to touch the crowd.
Obama, at times, comes across more as the recipient of campaign love than the dispenser.
In July, he began an appearance in West Palm Beach, Fla., by remarking that he'd just received "the most kisses I've gotten at any campaign event." And when a phone went off during his remarks, Obama speculated that it was his wife, Michelle.
"She heard all those women were kissing me," he joked. "She got a little nervous. She's feeling a little jealous."