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Unwritten rules of debate: No hands

By Ann Gerhart,

To the sports metaphors being tossed around after Fight Night in Vegas, otherwise known as the eighth Republican presidential hopefuls’ debate, add this one: If you are going to run for office, you need to be able to take a punch and throw a punch.

This isn’t meant to be literal. But there was a remarkable moment Tuesday night when viewers briefly wondered if Mitt Romney and Rick Perry might slug it out right there onstage.

In their now-weekly ritual of battling to be top alpha male, the two had been placed side by side. Perry had just accused Romney of knowingly employing “illegals” to trim his lawn, Romney was trying to respond, Perry kept talking over him, and Romney, frustrated, reached right over and laid his larger paw on the shoulder of the shorter man. Perry’s eyes blazed with anger; he jabbed his finger at Romney and kept talking.

Ours is a touchier society than ever, full of air kisses and man hugs and all manner of people petting little dogs they carry everywhere. Candidates pat babies and drape their arms around strangers. Romney himself was doing this odd thing over the summer in which he posed for pictures with women and then pretended they were goosing him. Ha. Ha.

But the debate stage has its own set of rigid rules of engagement, the most important being: Keep your hands to yourself. You can shake hands before and clap a rival on the back after — and even kiss Rep. Michele Bachmann on the cheek — but never, ever make a move on the other guy.

And this is because history seems to favor the candidate whose space is invaded.

During one of their debates in a New York Senate race in 2000, Rick Lazio marched over to Hillary Rodham Clinton to confront her about a pledge she’d made. She ignored him. Now she’s in Kabul, and Lazio is a line in this story.

“Remember when Al Gore walked up to George W. Bush in that debate?” Republican political strategist Ken Feltman says, summoning up a night in October of 2000. “It was a ploy, a technique, but Bush gives him this look that says, ‘This guy is . . . weird.’ It was one of Bush’s better moments. And therefore one of Gore’s very difficult moments.”

John Neffinger sighs. “You know, Gore tried that in every practice debate,” says Neffinger, a Democratic consultant who specializes in image, “and all his coaches said don’t do that, and he goes out there and does it anyway.”

Touching is an even more direct way of asserting control over an adversary. It can project strength, or warmth, or both, so it can be ambiguous.

Longtime Republican glamazon Georgette Mosbacher interpreted Romney’s move as “a calming touch” and said that since Tuesday night she has gotten more people to sign up for the New York fundraiser she is co-hosting for him in a few weeks.

But Perry was not calmed. And Romney in frustration finally appealed to CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper — “Anderson?” — to enforce the rules.

“It’s a risky move,” says Neffinger, “because if you make a move to assert dominance and it doesn’t work and you run and tell Mommy,” you wind up looking weak. “He calls for intervention from a higher power and he can’t get the job done.”

Lest this emphasis on decoding body language seem inconsequential, Feltman offers this: “The hidden secret is that likability is much more important than we think. People who are not liked are eliminated.”

Little matters loom large. Ron Paul needs a new tailor; Bachmann’s hair looks like an attempt to be more masculine. These are the pronouncements Feltman heard Wednesday from those who analyze these primary debates as if they were primate debates.

The strategizing and media training and examination of body language is an “inexact science,” acknowledges Feltman. “It’s more an art of interpretation.”

Except when a melee erupts that leaves no doubt.

Less than 48 hours earlier, a ritual handshake nearly caused a fistfight — between two coaches in the NFL. Winning 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh got carried away after a tough game and apparently incorrectly glad-handed Detroit Lions’ coach Jim Schwartz.

Schwartz took offense and went after Harbaugh, and a scrum formed.

“I was just really revved up, and it was totally on me,” Harbaugh said. “I shook his hand too hard, and I really went in. It was a strong slap-grab handshake. A little too hard, the handshake.”

All of which shows that no matter your battlefield — the gridiron or the stump — the male-
on-male touch can be
the most inflammatory move of all.

Staff writer Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.

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