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GOP Des Moines Debate LiveBlog

08/05/2007 09:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to HuffPost's exclusive liveblog of ABC's GOP debate in Iowa, where earlier today nonverbal communication specialist John Neffinger, Political Brain author and language expert Drew Westen and Eat the Press' Rachel Sklar offered their real-time reactions to the candidates' performances.

2007-08-05-GOPdebateIowa.JPGRACHEL: Hi and welcome to HuffPost's liveblog of the debate — depending on where you are in the country, you are either watching this or the "The Ernest Angley Hour." Political Brain author Drew Westen will pipe up with his comments after viewing the debate on his local affiliate (Atlanta - 11 am) so keep checking back. [Update: See complete YouTube video footage of the debate here.] In the meantime, we're off!

JOHN: So we are starting with some fireworks here, with Stephanopoulos inviting Brownback to go after Romney. Romney weathered the attack well, keeping a pretty good smile on his face the whole time, not looking defensive.

RACHEL: It's Romney's to lose, apparently — at least in Iowa. But it makes for a fun debate to go for the jugular at the outset. Though Brownback would have done well to show a bit more passion here - it seemed a little too modulated. Mitt wins this on the response, without even dealing with the specifics (note that he deflected Stephanopoulos' attempts to corner him with a point that he'd been honored for pro-life views). Romney won this.

DREW: Romney is refusing to answer any of the charges about his prior pro-choice stands. He switched to cloning when asked about his position on abortion. But he did it effectively with, "I'm tired of people who are holier than thou..." I suspect he may have been tapping into some latent sentiment on even the Republican side that they've gotten too extreme in their imposition of particular interpretations of Scripture on the rest of us. And immediately after, Giuliani got a lot of applause with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton's stand on abortion: It's up to a woman, her doctor, and her faith, and we should try to reduce abortions.

JOHN: Tommy Thompson speaks strongly here at the beginning to his pro-life beliefs, but there is very little expression on his face at all, and he doesn't gesture much at all. He is a black hole of charisma.

2007-08-05-ThompsonPotato.JPGRACHEL: Is it wrong to say that he reminds me a little of Mr. Potato Head? Giuliani reminds me of the Jim Carrey character in "The Mask" when he smiles. Hey, these are non-verbal impressions, they count.

Whoa - Stephanopolous throwing it down to John McCain, challenging him with Rudy's strength. McCain doesn't respond with strength here, though — just makes a weird and tenuous link between national security and being pro-life. He doesn't really sounds like he believes it worked, either.

DREW: Our stand on abortion is connected to our stand on national security because it says who we are as a people? Now that's a stretch. I think stopping torture and wire-tapping says a lot more about who we are.

JOHN: Ron Paul is not only animatedly saying we should get out of Iraq -- he is getting whoops of unbridled enthusiasm from this Republican primary audience for it. This party is in trouble.

2007-08-05-RonPaul.JPGDREW: Ron Paul got a lot of applause for his line about how our troops ought to "just come home." Is this a Democratic or Republican primary? We're really seeing here the fault lines of what has happened when the conservatives have held complete power for several years, actualized their goals, and now we're seeing what they really want and really do when they govern. If Democrats have any sense in the next election, they will make sure that every Republican who has rubberstamped George W. Bush--which is virtually every one of them who is currently in office--is tied to what he has done domestically and internationally.

RACHEL: This debate stage looks like every other with the Big Three in the middle — Mitt, Giuliani and McCain — does McCain even count as Big Three anymore? I can't quite put my finger on what is lacking in terms of dynamism — is it that Stephanopoulos is sitting, not standing walking freely with the cordless mike? Is it the lack of a giant flatscreen with YouTube videos? Is it the white dudes in ties? Something is static here.

JOHN: Duncan Hunter's response is strong - Democrats are racing for the exits, nice image for him - and he delivers it forcefully, but not particularly presidentially. He gets even louder whoops from the war's backers, though.

2007-08-05-MittandRudy.JPGDREW: Congressman Hunter got applause from the other side of the Republican Party, who've been watching the Iraq story on Fox for five years. I hear we're winning.

RACHEL: Yes, but it was not altogether a fair swipe — the Dems aren't even pausing to say thank you? Tsk. Honestly, I think Ron Paul is the one to watch these days. The line between the Internet and the so-called "real" world blurs more every day, and he is a juggernaut there. And those were real cheers.

JOHN: Mike Huckabee is interesting here, answering the Iraq question. He seems a little hesitant at first as he pivots from Stephanopolous' "middle ground" question to his talking point, but then gets himself together. His posture is still a little schlumpy, especially on the same stage with Romney, but you can see conservatives liking what they see.

RACHEL: Whoa! Tancredo! Clearly the Mike Gravel of today's programme.

JOHN: McCain seems stern enough, saying he'd stay with the surge no matter that we don't hit our benchmarks, but so unhappy. This man survived torture, so I'm sure he's not given up yet, but he seems really tired of this whole scene... His second answer on this, he is telling us this is a historic moment, but his voice is soft and his manner is grave. Not much hope here.

DREW: Giuliani: "Weakness and appeasement should not be the policy of the United States."

RACHEL: But an Obama swipe'll work every time! They appreciated the Jane Fonda-Dr. Strangelove comment. Romney clearly had that one in the bank (or, er, on top of the car). What, he didn't have an Obama/Osama sign handy? Still, they were two strong, quotable soundbites — Mitt is on on on.

2007-08-05-debatefillerpic.JPGJOHN:Romney's attack on Obama is clever - tea with the enemy, bombing the allies - if completely facile and disingenuous. This is a good moment for him, as it shows him able to attack the likely opponents memorably, and he delivered the line well. He may regret this if he is criticized for not being tough enough.

DREW: Romney: "Obama will have tea with our enemies and bomb our allies." "We should have a surge of support for our troops that matches our surge in Iraq." This guy is dangerous. He elides things that are unconnected just as well as Karl Rove does. It sounds great--surge of support for our troops. And it got a lot of applause. But the meaning is the opposite; this is Newspeak at its finest. This is just like the "war on terror" that elided Iraq with Osama bin Laden.

JOHN: This Obama question is very interesting: it's turning the GOP field into a bunch of pussycats! Romney is singing the praises of diplomacy. Giuliani has been attacking the democrats gravely, but he just served up the first regrettable moment of this debate: it went by too fast, but Mr. Tough Guy Giuliani just responded to the question about going after terrorists by saying something along the lines of we're going to tell them we might consider going after the bad guys if they don't feel like they can do it themselves. I want to see it again - and I might want to see it again and again as part of a campaign ad too.

RACHEL: Okay so we've hit Iraq, health care, abortion, and Obama — see above re: Debate, Utterly Predictable. But here is something I wondered on ETP (and was echoed by Brian Williams on NBC, by the way): Will the topic of the Minneapolis bridge come up at all? National infrastructure ought to be uppermost in mind at this point...yes? No?

JOHN:
Yeah, it wil have to come up at some point — one would hope. Especially because Bush vowed to rebuild the bridge just like he vowed to rebuild New Orleans.

RACHEL: And that worked out great! Okay, back to the matter at hand: I find Mike Huckabee very likeable. His health care response was really good. And it could have played in either debate, in truth.

DREW:This guy can look angry and strong at times. People want to see that in a President, as long as the anger isn't diffuse. When it's diffuse, it gets associated with the candidate. When it's targeted, like his was, it projects strength.

JOHN: Huckabee, man, he could actually look like a strong leader if he didn't look slumped over all the time. He delivers his answers with good poise otherwise.

DREW: This guy is sharp: Give everybody the health care what Congress has. I don't know how he plans to pay for it, but it's effective rhetoric. If Huckabee can ratchet up his charisma just a bit, he's a threat, because he comes across as earnest and balanced, even when his positions are far right. He projects reasonableness. Brownback, in contrast, looks and sounds fake. It's funny, I think he actually believes his nutbaggery, be he looks scripted.

RACHEL: There is no one on that stage more poised than Mitt Romney. Man, is he smooth. Since we are all about non-verbal impressions here, I will disclose that I am not unaware of his dreamy-ish looks (but also not unaware of the rest of it — see above re: sign, dog). But today he is the frontrunner and he's playing it to the hilt.

JOHN: McCain is clutching the podium like a walker, as usual. But usually he is jumping up and down about something or other, so the total effect is still vibrant and strong. Not today. He has not smiled yet, especially stark as the next question goes to Romney, who is talking about the mess in the middle east with a small hopeful smile on his mouth. Romney is looking very very good today.

2007-08-05-AlaspoorMcCainyouareashellofyourformerself.JPGDREW: McCain on Iraq: It's hard to watch him and think he matters anymore. His answers are so far off the mark, and so off from what he knows is true; or maybe now he even believes what he's saying, who knows. As a Democrat, I vote for him for the GOP nominee. I've been for him since he got off the straight-talk express over a year ago because he'd be so easy to beat on authenticity in an election that's going to hinge in large part, like 1976 after Watergate did, on who is convincing to the American people that "I'll never lie to you."

JOHN: Sam Brownback is haranguing us. Yawn.

RACHEL: This would have been a good time for a pre-packaged "What's the matter with Kansas?" joke, alas. Email me if you have one, readers!

DREW: A meta-comment here: Note how no one, including the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, is forcing the Republican candidates to offer any specifics on anything. How are we going to pay for the war? Who is paying for this "surge of support"? Who is paying for changes in health care? They stay at the level of values and very broad strokes (e.g., "more market forces in health 2007-08-05-GOPdebatesteph.JPGcare," "the Democrats want socialized medicine"), and the media get lulled into never asking them for specifics. In contrast, Democrats stay at the level of specifics and too rarely talk about their values, and the media demand to hear plank 13 of their plan to harness solar power. Neither approach is helpful from either candidates or journalists. People need first and foremost to know what candidates care about--their values--but they should have to be honest about how they're going to pay for it, and should offer clear illustrations of how they would govern. And journalists need to watch their biases on this--they attack Democrats for not giving specifics, but they allow Republicans to talk in moving platitudes.

JOHN: Here's the bridge question, right on schedule.

RACHEL: Well, good. I'm glad to see it. Points to George. And points to Rudy, it seems.

JOHN: Giuliani comes out swinging on the bridge question - 759 bridges in New York! Did his homework, he did. Yet somehow he thinks this is his moment to defend the Laffer curve, the idea that cutting taxes is the way to raise revenue.... And here's Romney singing the same song.

RACHEL:Is this the wrong time for a "Laffer? I don't even know 'er!" joke? Perhaps, perhaps. Though that seems to be the GOP excuse of the day. But it was smart of Giuliani to prep for this question, though where was the 9/11 reference? It's sort of his signature.

JOHN: McCain finally comes to life on this one, vowing to veto pork barrel projects - it's an old riff, but he falls into the groove and gets going... only to have George cut him off unceremoniously to go to commercial. Not McCain's day today.

2007-08-05-GeorgeStephtalkstothehand.JPGRACHEL:Month, really. God, he just looks sad today. Even his tie mutes him. Not as much as Stephanopoulos, of course. Wow. That was almost a smackdown.

JOHN: So, Romney is looking good today. Well, he always looks good -- dangerously handsome, this guy -- but he's looking grounded and in command too. Nobody else has much to cheer about. McCain is having a rough time. Giuliani is not generating much interest with his tough guy thing, not least because he was off his footing on the most substantial national security question of the morning. Tom Tancredo and Hunter are looking scary as usual, Brownback and Thompson bland as usual, and Ron Paul is doing his schtick on cue.

RACHEL:This started out with some promise but it's starting to drag a bit. Also, ABC's imitation "YouTube-style" video was SO not as much fun as the guy cradling his AK-47. I have to say, having watched all the debates so far, you can really see the difference between a line of white men versus the Democratic field. And the absence of a bright coral jacket is striking.

JOHN: McCain comes back strong with the quips of the morning so far: the Vice president's responsibilities include "inquir[ing] daily into the health of the President....[and then on the topic of Cheney's role] I would make clear there is only one President" Kinda sad that that's as quotable as we've gotten, but there it is.

RACHEL: There was one lone clapper on that one.

2007-08-05-DuncanHunter.JPGThis VP question seems to have gone on forever. One thing I will say about Duncan Hunter — he needs some media training. He doesn't look at the camera — he's delivering this impassioned response about his son in Iraq and he is saying it straight to Stephanopolous — who is off-camera and below Hunter to his left. So to viewers at home, that means a disconnect.

JOHN: Ron Paul delivers another spiel about the fundamental values of the party, to warm applause. He is a great gadfly, but will never turn the corner to a mainstream candidate like this - his demeanor is alarmed, with his voice high and his arms waving and his eyebrows riding high on his forehead. If he delivered the same message with a John Wayne/Ronald Reagan demeanor, we might have a different race on our hands.

RACHEL: Sigh. Where is Fred Thompson when you need him? He's so PRESIDENTIAL!

JOHN: Probably sleeping in.

DREW: Romney on how to raise money: Again, watch his nonverbals while he inspires people with rhetoric about growing the economy as the way of collecting more revenue. Research shows that his kind of easy head movements are predictive of gut-level liking, which is highly predictive of voting. And listen to the way he uses intonation in his voice to activate mirror neurons that lead us to feel what he feels and associate him with positive emotions. Note to Democrats if they face this guy in the general election: So why didn't "growing the economy" work under George W. Bush? And what do you do when the economy isn't blossoming, or when it's creating great jobs--elsewhere?

JOHN: The tax issue is telling: calling for abolishing the IRS and flattening taxes gets hearty applause... Yet Giuliani points out that the IRS is necessary to administer whatever tax system we have, and McCain takes the opportunity to discuss the alternative minimum tax. Points for sober judgement? Not likely.

DREW: Huckabee: "More Americans fear an audit from the IRS than being mugged." Drug dealers and pimps won't be able to escape paying taxes if we have a "FAIR tax" (i.e., 23% sales tax). He uses words well and powerfully.

Romney on taxes: Nice to hear him answer honestly. Sadly, it didn't get him applause. He'll go back to platitudes and skirting the issue if he's subject to the laws of operant condition: Behavior is governed by its consequences, particularly its emotional consequences. Those are some of the same laws that govern voting.

And see its effect on McCain: Note how, here and elsewhere, McCain isn't even getting applause when he deserves it, i.e., when he's talking straight. He destroyed his moral authority over the last 18 months by undercutting the story that sold him: That he's a guy who speaks his mind and tells the truth.

2007-08-05-GiulianihandsacrossAmerica.JPGRACHEL:I think this debate is interesting, because on the one hand, it actually seems to give candidates more time to engage on the issues — no clucking Anderson Cooper here — and it's allowing for a bit of cross-debate, too. But I have to say, it's not as engaging as the previous debates, for me (even the first Republican debate, which was made more fun thanks to Reagan drinking games). Trying to put my finger on the "why" here. Is this an argument for flashier fare? Or a flashier host? Or flashier candidates? Is it the static set? Or maybe it does call for the moderator to actually moderate. I'm not quite sure.

DREW: Another meta-comment: Note how uncritical and non-aggressive the representative of the "liberal media" moderating this event is being. I haven't heard him force anyone to answer any question with specifics. The level of critical follow-up is so different from what we've heard in Democratic debates. The right has clearly "worked the refs" so well that the refs aren't doing their job. I don't mean to impugn Stephanopoulos personally here. He's smart, he's thoughtful, and he's normally a good interviewer. He's just responding to the same pressures as virtually all of the "liberal media," in allowing Republicans to speak at the level of values without specifics or challenging follow-up on It's time for journalists to have a couple of retreats to watch their own coverage and the way they moderate the primaries on both sides

JOHN:The "What's your greatest mistake" question brings this discussion, and these stuffed suits, to life. Romney takes the opportunity to explain his evolution on abortion - but he is turned casually to the side, which undermines his sincerity. Giuliani cracks everyone up making a joke at his expense, saying there's no way he could explain his mistakes in 30 seconds... but instead of standing pat with his first joke, looking strong, he pushes it too far, saying he'd confess to George's dad, which saps the power of his response. McCain first looks unhappy to have to follow the comedian, and then drags everyone down with him, telling a war story. McCain really doesn't need to show us any more of his grave side at this point.

RACHEL:Newsflash: Brownback hearts his family, unborn children. No word on his position on the families of other people in the country — like, say, families from poor (black) demographics beset by staggering rates of out-of-wedlock births and single motherhood. Just sayin'.

Brave of Mitt to bring up the abortion thing again, though a bit contrived. But he delivered that well. Contrasted with the more personal response of Tommy Thompson (though it seemed odd to admit that he wasn't supportive enough to family members with cancer). With him on the breast cancer pledge though. Oooh, Tancredo's response was a little too intense. The non-applause was telling.

DREW: Romney's answer on his biggest mistake was very smart: To say he was wrong in supporting an abortion law he didn't believe in it as Governor of Massachusetts. Why? Because it addressed his greatest weakness--his flip-flopping, particularly on this issue--by seeming honest, admitting a mistake, and offering an alternative narrative on why he ran and governed as a Massachusetts liberal on social issues other than "he just wants to win." I don't believe him, but it's a good alternative story, and if he's nominated, his Democratic opponent needs to be ready with a counter-narrative and with a well-honed attack on the narrative coherence of his story. Did he make the same mistake on gays? On guns (or just little rodents)?

JOHN: Brownback and Tancredo are parodies of Republican candidates: I don't tell my wife and kids I love them enough? I took too long to realize Jesus was my personal savior? And told in a pat way, with no personal story. Did some consultant get paid to come up with that, or have they just been at this so long it comes naturally?

RACHEL:Weirdly, I am reminded of that long, long pause John Edwards took before figuring out that Jesus was his moral leader. At least he thought about it.

DREW: Great line by Giuliani when asked about his biggest mistake: "You want me to describe all my mistakes in 30 seconds?" That will play over and over on the media. Democratic candidates should note this well: Pick your own instant replays. Make sure you have some well-honed lines, including jokes, in every debate, because that's what people will see on CNN. Most people won't see the debates, but they'll see the replays, and those replays will shape their emotional associations to the candidate.

RACHEL: Giuliani's biggest mistake? Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.

RACHEL: Final question: What would you restore to the Oval Office, and how might you distance yourself from the current president? Stephanopoulos set that one up but good. Oddly, though, only Tancredo picks it up (he'd restore hope. Gets a point for noting that America has been distanced from other nations; loses a point for continuing to talk for way too long after that). Ha - Brownback still hearts families, but actually picked up on my gripe from before (63% of babies born in Washington D.C. are born out of wedlock; 36% nationally). He then takes that to the natural conclusion: Marriage for life between a man and woman; appointing a justice to overturn Roe v. Wade.

John McCain remains grave, invokes "the transcendant challenge of this nation, which will be for all of the 21st century...the stuggle against radical Islamic extremism." He unwittingly plays right into Rudy's hands — Rudy will restore hope, dammit, just like he did in New York City after 9/11. Point: He's run a city, having been a mayor or governor counts for something, dammit. Demerit: His "maybe the Democrats have run a club" joke falls flat. Here's Romney, invoking Reagan (drink!), Roosevelt, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln, Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge and Millard Fillmore (the president and the duck). Wow these answers go on for so long — Anderson Cooper, we miss your firm, guiding hand. Well, at least no candidate can complain that they didn't get enough airtime. Mike Gravel, maybe it's time to switch sides!

JOHN: And just like that, it's over. A lot happened here that we couldn't type fast enough to comment on, not least crazy comments about various issues (needing more market forces in health care?). I look at this mostly from the point of view of who has the most compelling non-verbal presentation -- not because the policy differences are not important (i.e. Tom Tancredo wants to threaten to bomb Mecca in response to a terrorist attack, while Tommy Thompson thinks that's a dumb idea), but because research shows that the candidate whose non-verbals appeal to more people tends to get more people's votes in the end.

DREW: If I didn't mention some of the candidates, that's because nothing they said made me feel anything. That's not good news for them, since emotional response to a candidate is the second-best predictor of voting behavior behind feelings toward their party.

RACHEL: I can't vote (Canadian) but if I were to base this on sheer visceral response, I'd go with Huckabee (and, if pressed, Romney.) McCain used to have that, but it all seems to have been beaten into submission.

2007-08-05-TheMittster.JPGJOHN: When we look at what candidates' non-verbals are projecting, we look first to see how they are doing on two key attributes: Strength and warmth.

Non-verbally speaking (er, not pantomiming, just focusing on the non-verbals), two candidates helped themselves this morning. Mitt Romney always looks great, but often in the past he has undermined himself by coming across as over-eager, talking and gesturing in a rapid staccato, not connecting emotionally. His posture and reputation for competence project strength (and his smile and big family project warmth), but his non-verbals have often projected insecurity and need for approval. Today he looked much more composed, more self-assured. (Republican candidates generally have good coaches for this stuff, but just in case, that's as much detail as I'll go into.)

DREW: "I think Obama is confused about who are our friends and who are our enemies"; "We need to strengthen" the freedom and Democracy in Pakistan. Last time I looked, Pakistan wasn't a model of democracy. But at this moment, I'd bet on Romney as the nominee. He talks just like Ronald Reagan did: with finely honed catch-phrases; a smooth, stately demeanor (notice his posture — straight up but not stiff); and warmth and strength. Watch also his easy head movements, his easy use of his hands, the mobility of his face, and the effectiveness of his intonation. This guy gets nonverbals - and he also gets verbals. A Democratic communicator who could counter Romney with a mixture of data, emotion (e.g., angry indignation when he isn't leveling with voters), strength, and humor could beat him easily as a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal who turned into a carbon-copy of George W. Bush. But he'll kill us with "there you go again" if we run a candidate who doesn't match his charisma.

JOHN: Romney is not Ronald Reagan yet, even with that pompadour. But the Mitt Romney we saw today would be a serious opponent for any democrat. Someone with his central-casting good looks is a natural to play the role of national father figure, and would offer swing voters a reassuring familiarity if the alternative is a woman or a black man in the role

RACHEL: Believe me now and quote me later, but I think that Romney is the most likely of all the candidates to have a Macaca moment. Is he dreamy? Sure. But to me it seems empty confection. And the rodent-shooting and dog-driving seem to me red flags of other random, damaging factoids that may yet emerge. Like I said, quote me later.

JOHN: Mike Huckabee also had a good morning. His posture seems permanently slumped -- whether that's just his physique, or how he habitually stands, it is hard to say -- and it's hard to project the strong authority of a Commander in Chief if you look slumped. Beyond that, though, he was engaged, smiling and looking stern at appropriate moments (projecting warmth and strength), gesturing naturally, looking good. If movement conservatives are queasy about the late conversions of Romney and Giuliani, Huckabee looked like their most appealing, most viable alternative today. Brownback is stiff, which projects a brittle strength but little warmth. Hunter comes off as stern to the point of angry, and Tancredo as angry to the point of crazy -- the GOP's own Gravel, as per Sklar.

DREW: Brownback on taxes and everything else: I vote for him for used car salesman.

2007-08-05-SamBrownbacktheEagle.JPGRACHEL: Drew said watch it if he didn't mention you, but he only mentioned Brownback in the context of mistrusting him. Meanwhile, I sort of think that he, too, could be a candidate for Sam the Eagle. So that's Mr. Potato Head, The Mask, and Sam the Eagle. I would say that Ron Paul looks like Big Head from the SNL "Ace & Gary" cartoons, but Chertoff got there first. (Sorry, I digress.)

JOHN: Rudy and McCain each had a moment or two of good humor, which scores warmth points, and their generally dour demeanors scored some strength points. But neither really brought much energy to their answers, and neither did themselves any favors. That is not to say Rudy wasn't generally his usual stern self, but he didn't break much new ground, and he stumbled on the Pakistan question, offering a mouthful of mumbo-jumbo that he couldn't skip through fast enough. And McCain, I mean, wow. McCain often projects strength with a quietly intense voice, a la Clint Eastwood's "Go ahead, make my day." Today the intensity was gone -- his voice was just quiet, soft, resigned to his unhappy lot as deposed front-runner. This guy is just soldiering on at this point.

Ron Paul's shrill flailings guarantee that his views will remain marginal, but they also help make him memorable. He is not strong, not warm, not an alpha politician, but it is great to see him on the stage making his party think.

So Romney pulls away a little today, Huckabee makes his case as the conservative alternative, and the world still waits to see if Fred Thompson — Mr. Strength & Warmth himself — will ever take his place on stage.

RACHEL: Dare to dream. That's it for now — thanks to Drew and John for their terrific observations, and to those of you who have already piped up in the comments section below. We'll be back liveblogging the next one. Thanks for joining us!

Update: Find YouTube video footage of the entire debate here.