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With body language, presidential candidates say a lot

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate)

In their first one-on-one debate, the different styles of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were readily apparent.

As Clinton emphasized the highlights of her husband’s “trajectory of change,” in moving “deficits and debt to a balanced budget and a surplus,” she chopped the air with one hand, then the other.

Obama, his left hand raised, index finger and thumb extended, seized the moment to turn the tide of the conversation. “The question is, how do we take the country in a new direction?” he said. Matching the rhythm of his speech, he moved his hand up and down buoyantly.

As the campaign for president settles in for the long haul, with candidates hoping to underscore their differences to an electorate already bombarded by debates, primaries and flashy advertising, body language experts say it’s not just the verbal messages that help influence voters. It’s how they move, too.

Karen Kohn Bradley, a public speaking coach and professor of dance at the University of Maryland, has been studying politicians’ gestures since 2002 and sees noteworthy contrasts among the candidates in this race.

“Hillary is much more grounded and a little narrower,” Bradley noted. “She has gestures extending in front of her. Rarely does she spread her arms out. She has the ability to stop her actions, to be contained.”

In contrast, Obama’s gestures are wider and lighter. “Barack will use the finger point, and there’s a little bit of a lilt to it,” said Bradley. “She’s more private, he’s more open. She’s more about setting the agenda forward. He’s more about weighing and explaining.” Democrats looking for a tough and disciplined candidate will lean toward Clinton, said Bradley, while people who are attracted to openness will choose Obama. As for the Republican candidates, Bradley said, their styles have even sharper contrasts.

“Mike Huckabee speaks from the heart,” she said, noting that he reaches outward and opens his arms wide. On the other hand, “John McCain is ground into the floor,” said Bradley.

McCain, 71, who is now the presumptive Republican nominee, might appear immovable because war injuries prevent him from fully extending his arms. On the positive side, McCain’s solidity might suggest to Republican voters that he stands his ground. “He is not going to shift positions,” Bradley said, and people looking for that will vote for him. Huckabee appeals more to voters looking for an emotional connection with their candidate, she said.

Whether they notice it or not, voters’ impressions of candidates can be swayed by body language.

Holly Conrad, 28, voted for Obama in New York’s Feb. 5 primary.

“I just like the way Barack carries himself,” she said. “He’s much less aggressive in his demeanor than Hillary. He’s more relaxed, more approachable. We need an approachable president.”

For Lisa Waterbury, 29, a Connecticut Democrat, it was Hillary Clinton’s discipline that swayed her vote.

“I think she’s very strong,” Waterbury said. “She probably ran the country when Bill was in office.”

“She’s one of the most self-confident women out there,” agreed Tom Whitfield, 55, of Tennessee. Whitfield opted for Obama, however, because of his “youth and enthusiasm.”

Though Hillary Clinton has embodied for some voters a sense of discipline and confidence, she revealed a different side in what has come to be known as her “New Hampshire moment,” when she appeared misty-eyed, her chin cradled in hand, after a voter asked about the stresses of the campaign trail. Though many have speculated as to whether Clinton was sincere, the emotion she showed may have influenced the outcome of the New Hampshire primary.

“I don’t know whether it was authentic or not,” said New Yorker Phyllis Mollé, 74. “But it made me think she was more human.”

Pam Greitzer-Manasse, 45, also of New York, said she sympathized with Clinton because “if you’re a strong woman you’re labeled witchy, whereas if you tear up, you’re weak.” Bradley also believes Clinton’s gesture was authentic.

“You could literally see her soften—-her voice softened, her skin softened,” she said, noting that it seemed to have helped Clinton appeal to voters on a human level. “Hillary is measured in different ways because she’s a woman. She has to seem tough, but she’s accused of not being emotionally available.”

Nichola Gutgold, whose 2006 book “Paving the Way for Madam President” covers six U.S. women who ran for president or vice president between 1964 and 2004, agreed that it is difficult for women to project a presidential air when voters are used to male candidates.

Gutgold noted that after Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) ended her brief 1987 presidential campaign with a famously emotional speech, she told an interviewer, “I learned that I don’t look like a president.”

On the contrary, Gutgold said, “Hillary Clinton looks like a president. She’s very lawyerly, very confident. Her gestures are very powerful.”

The importance of the physical conversation with voters is not lost on politicians themselves, and candidates often hire consultants to help them hone their body language. Clinton, along with her husband, the former president, has worked with consultant Michael Sheehan. Sheehan, who has a degree from Yale Drama School, promises clients, “A confident, relaxed ability to communicate effectively can be your competitive edge.”

Successful presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were known for their relaxed and personable demeanor on the campaign trail. On the other hand, also-rans like Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole lost the body language campaign. Dukakis is now best known for posing awkwardly in a tank, a public relations stunt that made him look weak and foolish. Dole, a wounded World War II veteran, became known for clutching a pen in his paralyzed right hand.

Of course, some voters could care less about body language. Republican maverick Ron Paul, who has remained in the race thanks to a small but dedicated following, is not known for his poise or self-confident appeal, but for his excitability when discussing his libertarian policies.

“I don’t much care how he carries himself,” said New York Paul supporter Gary Snyder, 45. “I care about his message.”

E-mail: amc2235@columbia.edu