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Don't Confuse Us With Facts: Why Debates Are All About Style

If you think substance trumps style, the analysis of last night's presidential debate might come as a shock. There seems to be a lot more talk today about things like temperament and facial expressions than the facts.

Here's a sampling of opinion:

Writing in Forbes, Frederick E. Allen says President Obama "looked defensive and uncertain," while GOP challenger Mitt Romney "may have said things that were clearly untrue ... but he said them convincingly."

The Washington Post said: "Obama's facial expressions seemed to alternate between grimly looking down at his podium and smirking when Romney said something with which he disagreed."

The Chicago Tribune quoted an Obama supporter, Karl Amelchenko, as saying that "unfortunately" he thought Romney had won the debate because the GOP candidate was "aggressive. He attacked."

And, Reuters tracked down Janine Driver, president of something called the Body Language Institute (uh yes, really) to opine that, "With regard to body language, Mitt Romney was the winner."

The much-quoted CNN/ORC International poll shows a whopping 67 percent of those who watched the debate thought the president got the worst of it.

Clearly, it seems, you've got to chalk one up for Romney on the question of style. Contrast that with the facts (or lack thereof), and the two candidates come off looking a bit more evenly matched.

"From just out of the gate, then throughout the debate, the sense of urgency that Mitt Romney brought to his task last night was important," says Mitchell McKinney, who teaches political communication at the University of Missouri.

"That contrasted with a deliberative, almost halting approach on Obama's part," he says. "When you compare urgency to this halting demeanor, then Obama comes off as not prepared."

"Obama's nonverbal cues mirrored his reluctance to verbally confront Romney's attacks," McKinney says.

Michael Shanahan, a professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, says the debates are "not about the facts, they are about establishing impressions."

"The arguments over taxes and Obamacare are too much for most people to absorb," he says. "What people are looking for is how the candidate looks, whether he looks like a leader, and whether he looks like a president."

Last night, Obama was definitely "off his game," Shanahan says. "I don't know what Obama's people were telling him, but my sense is they wanted him to appear reserved and in control. It wasn't a good strategy, in my opinion."

There were plenty of times, too, when Obama missed the opportunity to refute his opponent's arguments, such as the claim that the Affordable Care Act cut $716 billion from Medicare, something fact checkers, at best, have labeled a half-truth.

But the fact checking that comes after the fact doesn't do much good, says McKinney. The audience for the debate was far greater than the number of people who pay attention to websites such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

"During a debate, the best fact checker is the opponent, and on that score, the president really fell down," McKinney says.

Will the debate dent the polling numbers?: "One debate does not a president make," he says.

"But what we've found is that if one candidate can string together a series of strong performances, they can turn things in their favor."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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