Tim Russert was pressing Hillary Rodham Clinton to answer a question she was trying to brush off, and three public-speaking coaches were riveted to the television.
"No, let me finish -- " Russert was saying early in Wednesday night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire.
"I know what the question is," Clinton said firmly. And she kept cutting him off until the moderator threw up his hands and let her answer her way.
Hours later, the consultants still couldn't get over the way Clinton won the rhetorical jujitsu against Russert, as they viewed it: with a steady gaze, a non-shrill tone, her left hand drawing an invisible line not to be crossed.
"If her voice had jumped up, or if she had made a quick cutting gesture, it would have been untoward," mused Seth Pendleton.
"She was showing patience with his lack of understanding," said John Neffinger.
Matt Kohut nodded. "It was masterful."
But . . . what was her answer again? Something about Israel and Syria? No one could remember. "It's the nonverbals," Pendleton said, laughing sheepishly, "that are endlessly fascinating here."
It's the "nonverbals" that the threesome, partners in a small, Washington-based consulting firm, KNP Communications, believe play a crucial role in how swing voters pick a candidate. They cite academic research in which average-Joe subjects predicted, with a startling level of accuracy, which candidate won a race after viewing only a brief, soundless clip of the pols in action. It's the soft science of first impressions and gut reactions -- not just what candidates say, but how they say it. Which ones convey warmth and strength with expansive gestures or a firm gaze; which ones undercut their messages with weakling posture or an untimely scowl.
In other words: Why Reagan beat Carter. Why Bill Clinton beat Dole.
The KNP guys -- Democrats unaffiliated with any of the 2008 presidential candidates -- earn their living loosening up CEOs and pols. They agreed to watch this week's debate with us to talk about who's got it when it comes to the nonverbals -- and who needs work.
Her eye contact is strong, her movements deliberate but not wooden. "How much calmer is her voice than all these shouting senators?" marvels Neffinger.
The topic is local police who refuse to enforce immigration law. "I don't think there is any choice," she says, shaking her head. Pendleton likes the shake: "It helps punctuate what she's saying. If you nod, people nod with you."
But Clinton's always been adept at conveying strength. Warmth? Still a new thing for her. So the test comes at the moment when Clinton declares she opposes torture, even to cadge information about an imminent terror attack -- and Russert notes, gotcha!-style, that her husband disagrees.
"Well, he's not standing here right now," retorts Clinton, staring down Russert -- and then breaks out in a coy grin: "Well, I'll talk to him later."
"Damn!" exclaims Neffinger.
"The tone is, 'I'm the one wearing the pants now,' " says Pendleton. "But she rounds it out with a genuine smile. That's a skill, to weave in warmth and humor."
He's blinking a lot -- is it the lights? -- and his smile seems forced. "He has a tendency to lose the smile as soon as he's made it," says Kohut. "It's not a real smile." When he talks about torture, his eyebrows stay raised just a little too long. "It's like writing in all caps," says Neffinger. "The value declines the more you use it."
But his body language displays a real enthusiasm when the topic moves to economics. "We have to be very careful," Edwards says, about Social Security, and he cups his hands as if carrying an egg.
Russert hits him with a question about $400 haircuts and the $500,000 he earned from a hedge fund, and Edwards visibly bristles.
"He's [peeved]!" says Pendleton, approvingly.
"Well, he could be more [peeved], if he could get the smile off his face," says Neffinger.
But Pendleton argues Edwards is demonstrating just the right amount of indignation: "He's talking faster, he's jutting out, like 'You want some of this?' The eyes narrow. There's a bit of Clint Eastwood."
He shifts from side to side, but in a "dynamic" way, not metronomic. He's doing the furrowed-brow thing, which feels appropriate with talk of Iraq.
But this is a candidate who won hearts with the "optimistic visage" of his 2004 Democratic convention speech. "His eye contact was up and out," says Pendleton. "His cadences were natural and energetic." Can Obama get that back?
He can, indeed -- when he starts talking about his children, and suddenly his head tilts upward, his face shining. You can't force that kind of warmth, the KNP guys say; it has to spring from a candidate's genuine feelings about a topic. Like Edwards, Obama lights up again (smiling, eyebrows raised) when the subject moves to pocketbook issues.
Then there's that . . . that look. Neffinger tries to mimic it: the cocked head, the easy grin, the sideways gleam in the eye. "That's part of the reason he's the young, hip candidate. He's the cool guy. He's got the head bob. Reagan had it."
Strong voice. More relaxed than ever, he's giving confident one-word answers, resisting the old impulse to declaim. Almost a great speaker. Except . . .
"We're talking about Iraq, right?" says Neffinger. "Let's see if he can keep the smile off his face." He does. But with Biden, you never know when it's going to come back. On the topic of cities coping with federal immigration mandates, the fantastic grin is unfurled, just as Biden describes a troubled city that "went in the dumpster."
Pendleton notes that Biden is simply smiling "at the absurdity" of the situation.
"Yeah," says Neffinger. "But the postmodern, ironic approach robs from the emotion of the issue."
He talks about Iraq in an earnest, plodding cadence, one word after the other. "It's not the way people talk to one another in a bar," says Neffinger. And there's the bad habit, whenever he says "The problem is" or "Here's the problem," of gesturing towards himself.
But Richardson suddenly gets his groove on the topic of immigration. He swings his fists like a prize fighter, head bobbing with each of his points, and the emotion registers as genuine. "That's the Bill Richardson who can really ignite people's passions," says Kohut. "This is an issue that's right up close to his heart."
He's tall, and -- face it -- people like that. Subconsciously, it suggests strength. His gestures are very strong and determined. But the stern-eagle stare, framed by those fierce black brows, rarely softens. "You don't get the warm Chris Dodd very often," says Neffinger.
If Dodd were a client, says Pendleton, "we would want him to tell a humorous story, something that would warm him up, open up his gestures" -- as Dodd briefly does, moments later, talking about his young daughters.
And, man, slow it down! "His points are good, but things run together," says Pendleton. "Get three points out there instead of four. You want the audience to appreciate it. It's like what they say in jazz -- the space between the notes."
Scolding Clinton for a vote he claimed would lead to war with Iran, Gravel flings an arm in her direction. "You'd think that kind of forceful gesture would convey strength, but we're looking for a steady hand," says Neffinger. "And he's yelling already."
But that's the pitfall for second-tier candidates, desperate to get their voices heard. Kucinich's patter approaches Doddlike velocities as he crams every no-nukes/no-war/go-green talking point into a single answer.
And then, his moment. "You can have a president" who opposed the war, opposed the Patriot Act and supports single-payer health care, Kucinich deadpans. "Or you can have a president who's tall." Ba-da BUM! Suddenly, an assured grin, a sly glance to the side.
"Look at that!" says Neffinger. "This guy is Mr. Cool tonight! He's not straining, the eyebrows are level. . . . If he had a little more gray in his hair, and were like this all the time, he might actually get somewhere."
PHOTO: Darren McCollester/Getty Images; VIDEO: MSNBC; VIDEO EDITOR: Jacqueline Refo - washingtonpost.com