Debate Impressions: Big Bird and Body Language

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Associated Press + More

By JOCELYN NOVECK, Associated Press

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.

[PHOTOS: Obama, Romney Battle in First Presidential Debate.]

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:

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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."

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.

[READ: U.S. News Fact Checked the Debate]

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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.

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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.

[Cartoonists Skewer Romney, Obama]

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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.