Can Mitt Find the Wit to Boot Newt?

Dec 7, 2011 5:00am

Before he steps onto center stage with Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney might want to ask a doctor to inspect his funny bone.

Since Romney first decided to run for president four years ago, he has been beset by criticism that he’s too robotic and flat to be an effective candidate, despite his good looks. Unfortunately for him, his staid manner has gotten lots of air time since June, as the candidate has taken part in 10 debates.

The 11th is Saturday night, and if Romney wants to try to tango stylistically with Gingrich, who has shined in the debates like an Oscar winner surrounded by theater students, he’s going to have to loosen up and think of some jokes that are better than, “I’m Mitt Romney, and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.”

That advice isn’t from political experts — it’s courtesy of a handful of debate coaches and body language experts who note that Gingrich, the Republicans’ current rising star, carries himself with more self-assurance than does Romney, the purported front-runner.

“He thinks he’s tall and attractive. His confidence is extraordinarily high,” Patti Wood, a body language coach, said — of Gingrich, not Romney. “He carries his body as if he’s attractive. He smiles as if we enjoy looking at him. And that power is engaging to us.”

All hope isn’t lost for Romney. According to the debate gurus, all Romney has to do to gain ground on Gingrich’s technique is wield a few parlor tricks that can help him connect with his audience.

Like, for example, not saying “Newt,” which could make Gingrich more personable.

“If I were Romney, I would call him Speaker Gingrich, because he was so unpopular — as speaker of the House, everybody remembers, that dude shut down the government,” said Jennie Savage, a debate coach at Palo Alto High School who has earned national recognition. (She also worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in Ohio.)

Savage suggested leaning forward slightly on the lectern to seem connected with the audience, and that when an opponent suggests something outlandish, to poke fun at it without stealing the show.

“You look at the audience, you look at the judges, you look at the moderator, and you have that little twinkle in your eye, that half-smile,” she said. “As if to say, ‘Wow, you and I know that was pretty far out there.’ ”

And, of course, try to be a little funny.

“A touch of humor can always lighten the mood,” said Chris Burk, the debate director at the University of Texas at Dallas, noting that audiences loved Herman Cain when he was in the debates. “React physically. React with humor.”

Also in the bag of tricks is standing to the side of the lectern to expose more of the body to the camera.

“If that’s exposed to your audience, suddenly you look more honest,” Wood said, advising that Romney open up his “body windows” — the kneecaps, pelvis, heart, neck, mouth, eyes and palms.

What about gesturing? Wood suggested using hand motions naturally, and not in a labored way, which is usually the case when a candidate gestures after saying something, rather than during or beforehand. Though Burk said gestures are “distracting” and that appropriate facial expressions and tone of voice are more effective.

“Don’t let the debate’s artificial structure limit how you would normally interact with people,” Burk said. “And if that’s not your strong suit, you can maybe explain that in a way that makes light of yourself.”

The debating styles of Romney and Gingrich could hardly be more different. One is professorial and restrained; the other is a barely filtered freewheeler who targets the media with every chance.

“My colleagues have done a terrific job of answering an absurd question,” Gingrich told the CNBC moderators last month (as Romney watched him politely).

Gingrich’s aggressive approach to the debates might worry Republicans who fear that if he were nominated, he could be seen as an uncontrolled bulldozer compared with President Obama, notoriously calm and collected.

“It’s up to Obama and Romney to draw that out,” Savage said. “Make Newt detonate himself.”

But whatever Romney does to improve his performance, he shouldn’t try to emulate Gingrich’s style, because it’s not his own, said J. Scott Wunn, the executive director of the National Forensic League. What Romney should do, he said, is look Gingrich in the eye and answer questions logically.

Burk noted, though, that it’s unclear whether Romney can change his mannerisms.

“When we recruit debaters to our team, we don’t just look at how good they are; we look at their potential to improve,” Burk said. “One of the questions about Romney is, he’s been running for president for quite a while, in this cycle and the previous cycle — how much room for improvement is there? Maybe this is the best that he can get. Maybe he’s maxed out.”

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