Romney praised for body language

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a Republican presidential debate Monday Jan. 23, 2012, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.

Paul Sancya

NEW YORK -- The hands came out of the pockets. The gaze was intense. Mitt Romney leaned confidently into the lectern.

Even with the sound turned off, Romney would have stolen Newt Gingrich's debate thunder with a surprisingly commanding and aggressive performance in the latest Florida faceoff, body language experts said Friday.

To some, in fact, it was as if the two Republican presidential candidates had swapped roles, with Gingrich, the aggressor (and ultimate victor) in South Carolina, suddenly seeming the uncomfortable, squirmy candidate in Florida.

It was a marked change for Romney, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "All his nonverbal cues suggested directness," she said. "The halting delivery was gone. He didn't hesitate before responding. The indecisiveness disappeared."

The former Massachusetts governor also showed flashes of temperament, unafraid to display real anger at Gingrich's calling him, in an ad, an "anti-immigrant" candidate.

"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant!" he retorted. "The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that."

The anger came off as both real and controlled, said body language coach Patti Wood, which was important because it projected the sense that Romney wouldn't be carried away by his emotions as president.

"It was a controlled strength," said the Atlanta-based Wood, who coaches politicians and executives. "His shoulders were up, chest back. Very effective." And equally important, Wood said, is the way Romney ended the exchange -- with a slight, satisfied smile that stopped short of a smirk: "He could have ruined it at that moment with a smirk, which he's been known to do, but he didn't."

Another expert, Lillian Glass, said it was more than just technique -- that perhaps Romney was getting a better sense of himself as a candidate.

"You can coach someone, but the body doesn't lie," said the Los Angeles-based Glass, who coaches both politicians and actors in body language. "What's going on psychologically shows. What I'm seeing is more conviction, that he seems more sure of what he is saying."

One thing was clear to Glass: "If you turned off the sound last night, that was your leader, just based on the physical alone."