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Mitt Romney’s body language speaks of physical modesty, discipline

Who knew Mitt “the Mitt” Romney had such a devastating left jab? Who knew the man characterized by wooden understatement even had a left hand? We saw it in slow-motion splendor in that memorable October debate-turned-dust-up with Rick Perry, the one that left the Texas governor rattled by the louder, bigger and more persistent man’s touch.

Let’s revisit the ring, er, the scene: Romney, trying to quiet his opponent and rebut the claim that he had hired illegal immigrants, slid over to Perry and, keeping up a breathless tattoo of “I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking,” clapped his hand on Perry’s shoulder. Dramatic, as debate behavior goes? Oh, yes. But Romney’s stinging one-two combination — jab left, pummel with the voice — was not so much aggressive as stunningly elegant. He lost neither his smile nor his cool. In terms of grace and smoothness, Cary Grant could hardly have done better.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there is something pleasantly relentless about Romney. If it’s his turn to speak, he may grab your arm (gently) and demand the floor (politely) and he won’t let up until he has it. He is desperate to engage, to be part of the exchange.

Watch him in debates: Alone among the other candidates, Romney doesn’t just turn his head but moves his whole body toward whoever is speaking. Then he’ll lean an elbow on his lectern and, with the mild, slightly wincing smile that is his default expression, he’ll settle in to listen. (Is that the consultant in him, keeping an open mind? Or is it the missionary, hoping to find common ground and then swoop in for the conversion?)

For Romney, the debates are not a solo test. He’s in a duet. Who’s his partner? The guy next to him, the moderator — doesn’t matter. He wants to mesh. He has to be in a conversation, and he has to win it. Chalk it up to his Mormon Mission Impossible, going door to door in France in the Herculean task of trying to convert wine lovers to a boozeless faith. It was a pas de deux with rejection. Romney kept at it for 21 / 2 years.

Throughout this campaign and the last one, the former Massachusetts governor has been faulted as being boring and dry. Certainly, he’s the poster child for buttoned-up.

There’s no athlete’s bounce to his walk, nothing flamboyant in his manner. He recently started waving his hands around more when he talks — maybe an aide counseled him to show emotion — but those flourishes don’t suit him. Big moves aren’t in Romney’s repertoire. He’s not inclined to draw attention to himself, constrained as he is by a persistent physical modesty. He doesn’t swagger. If his walk could talk, it would say: Look, so I’m a little stiff, but I’m disciplined. I’m disciplined. I’m disciplined.

Stiff, yes. But not cold. With that vigorous, rapid-fire voice, with the way he seeks a one-on-one connection, Romney reaches out — at times literally. His physical expression is small-scale, and campaign watchers have to adjust for that. But he is no robot. This man wants to be involved. He has the missionary’s tenacity. That can even include, as Perry found out, the laying on of hands.

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