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."
Where did the new Romney technique come from? Both Jamieson and Wood say it was clear the candidate had been well coached. Indeed, Romney has been working with a new coach — Brett O'Donnell, formerly with Michele Bachmann's campaign.
"You don't make that kind of change without practice," says Jamieson.
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."
Not that many viewers do turn the sound off, but nonverbal cues are more important than people may think, said Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "The nonverbal message often carries a lot more weight than the verbal," said Shuster, who also studies presidential rhetoric.
In earlier debates, Shuster said, Romney had seemed less engaged, with his hands often in his pockets, as if staying above the fray. He also appeared exasperated when attacked by Gingrich.
"The tilt of his head, the tone of his voice," Shuster said. "It was almost like a parent disciplining a child, as in, 'I can't believe you just said that!'"
With his fiery style, Gingrich, said Shuster, took advantage of Romney's role as perceived front-runner. "The challenger has it easier — he forces the perceived favorite to go off his stride and go off message," he said. "Gingrich was very good at that. He forced Romney to stop talking about Obama and defend himself" — especially on questions over his personal income taxes and his considerable wealth.
Romney did, though, take a page from Gingrich's playbook: More effective use of the debate audience.
"Last night Romney got at least as much audience support as Gingrich did," said Jamieson.
In general, Gingrich seemed more frustrated, said Glass, the body language expert in Los Angeles. "His voice would go up in pitch," she said. "It was a pinched voice, and pinched facial expressions. He pursed his lips, furrowed his brow, shifted around a lot."
As for the two other candidates, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul each had their good moments, Glass said: Paul scored with his folksy humor (he even plugged his wife's cookbook) and Santorum "was very well-spoken, but lacked gravitas."
Of course, everyone has ups and downs, and things could change again. But, Jamieson said, Romney took a big step toward blunting Gingrich's contention that he'd be the more successful debater in the general election.
"If Republicans are looking for someone who can debate Barack Obama, the better debater on the stage last night was Mitt Romney," Jamieson said.