By JOCELYN NOVECK, ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK -- Is Big Bird the new Joe the Plumber?

The "Sesame Street" character, its bright yellow fluffiness suddenly evoked by Mitt Romney during Wednesday's debate, was certainly a star of the evening, garnering a wave of support on social networks and countless affectionate tweets.

But other than that, it was a night of few memorable sound bites and few zingers. Instead, the format made it a more detailed, substantive evening than usual, most analysts said. And though not all were ready to declare a knockout winner, it was clear that a sharp Romney performance had given the candidate a much-needed boost and put a more reserved president somewhat on the defensive – but with two upcoming debates to tweak his technique.

The AP asked a group of experts in political communication and body language for their impressions of the evening:

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PRACTICE HELPS

If practice, practice, practice gets you to Carnegie Hall, it can also help you if you're lagging in the presidential polls.

Romney had participated in 19 debates during the primaries, and all that practice showed, said Jerry Shuster, who teaches political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "It definitely helped him," Shuster said. "He was comfortable, relaxed. It wasn't a knockout punch, but Romney clearly held his own and showed that he could compete on an even field with the president."

The challenger was also helped by expectations that Obama would be the better debater – expectations eagerly fed by the Romney campaign beforehand. "I think people just assumed Obama would be a lot more skilled, a lot more dynamic than Romney, which wasn't really the case," Shuster said.

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THE BODY TALKS (EVEN WHEN IT'S LISTENING)

In Obama's case, his nonverbal cues were less forceful and convincing than those of the challenger, said one body language expert. If you had turned off the sound, said Lillian Glass, you would have seen a forceful Romney expressing passion and enthusiasm with his gestures and posture, and the incumbent looking less animated, said Glass, who works in Los Angeles coaching both politicians and actors in body language.

The difference was apparent not only when the candidates were talking, but when they were listening, she noted – not an unimportant chunk of time, because most of the time, viewers saw both candidates simultaneously on split screens.

"You could see Obama looking down a lot, pursing his lips," said Glass, author of the upcoming "Body Language Advantage." "He also did not look directly at his opponent, as Romney did."

Why did Obama seem more reserved in general? "My guess is Obama's advisers said, `Don't attack. Not presidential," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, speculated on Twitter.

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SMILE NEXT TIME

For another student of body language, the smile was an important barometer of a candidate's ability to appear warm and authentic, and in this case, Obama came out ahead.

"When he smiled – and maybe it didn't happen enough – that smile lit up Obama's whole face, and appeared very genuine," said Karen Studd, who teaches movement analysis at George Mason University in Virginia. She said his passion was especially apparent when he spoke of his 20th wedding anniversary with wife Michelle.

Romney lost on that point, Studd said. "He smiled a lot, but it didn't look very happy – almost a scowl," she said.

On the whole, though, Romney came out ahead because he projected more clarity, and Obama may have been hurt by his tendency to think for a bit before answering a question, Studd said.

"Obama's style is more impactful, less impulsive," she said.

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SPEAKING OF SMILING ...

Usually a debate has a couple good laughs, or at least lines you'll remember a long time – like Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's "Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy" to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. This debate had hardly any, though Obama did get in a dig at Donald Trump when he said sarcastically that according to Romney, Trump would be a small businessman, adding that Trump wouldn't want to think of himself as a small ANYTHING.

Romney also had a fairly amusing reference to his five sons, saying that made him "used to people saying something that's not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it."

If there were few funny lines, there were also no real gaffes, as in Al Gore's distracted sigh or George H.W. Bush's infamous glance at his watch.

But Romney did unwittingly unleash countless laughs across cyberspace when he made his surprise reference to Big Bird, saying to PBS's Jim Lehrer, the moderator, that he would cut the government subsidy to the public broadcasting network – even though he was fond of Big Bird.

One thing was clear from the many thousands of tweets speculating on Big Bird's fate: The yellow creature with the high-pitched voice had become the star of the night, rivaling Joe the Plumber from the 2008 campaign.

___

WHERE'S THE BEEF? ACTUALLY, IT WAS THERE

For political communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, it was the debate's format, not the body language, that was significant – and heartening. "This debate was substantive and informative," said Jamieson, of the University of Pennsylvania. "The differences between the candidates were clear. It focused a lot of attention on a limited number of areas; learning will be high from this debate."

And while she hesitated to come right out and pick a winner, she noted that Romney had "benefited dramatically from the evening." She added, though, that it's always harder for the incumbent, because there are four years of a record to attack, whereas the incumbent has less to work with.

Jamieson, a veteran analyst of debates, also was pleased with the tone of the night.

"There weren't nasty little asides to score points," she said. "It was an extremely respectful and polite evening."

Unless, of course, you're a big fluffy bird that could be out of a job.

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  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with President Barack Obama following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • President Barack Obama hugs First lady Michelle Obama after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama speak after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama laugh after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in shakes hands with Ann Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and family talk to President Barack Obama and family after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • Left, President Barack Obama hugs his wife Michelle with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hugs his wife Ann following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama hugs his wife Michelle following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama gestures during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gestures during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney smiles as President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama smiles at moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama points to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama answers a question of moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama smiles as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama, right, listens to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) speaks during the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama October 3, 2012 at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's shadow is reflected during the first presidential debate President Barack Obama withat the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • President Barack Obama speaks during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama listens during his debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama debates Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Barack Obama, Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama, right, speak during their first debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Rick Wilking, Pool)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) listens as Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) speaks as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama listens during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    The shadow of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is projected beneath a copy of The Declaration of Independence during the presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participates in the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • President Barack Obama answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, listens to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama watches as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)