GOP debate gets physical between Perry and Romney

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on October 19, 2011 at 5:30 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 19 at 5:40 PM

It started with a verbal attack by Rick Perry, followed by Mitt Romney's mocking laugh. Seconds later, the GOP debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night got physical.

It is that body language making headlines 24 hours later.

About 30 minutes into the debate, Romney reached out to put his hand on Perry's shoulder, to tell him to be quiet.

"It could be considered by many to be a demeaning moment where he was literally saying here, 'I'm in charge and control and I'm going to take care of you,'" explained Rita Kirk, director of SMU's ethics center.

Kirk is often hired by networks to analyze and monitor audience reaction at political debates.

Even though Romney may not know it, she says his invasion of Perry's personal space is a rather famous presidential tactic.

"It's often referred to as the 'Johnson treatment,' because Lyndon Johnson would get in your face and he would push people back," Kirk said. "And there are some great photos from where people were backed against a wall or backed across a desk."

Rick Perry didn't just take the "Johnson treatment." Seconds later, he pulled out the "finger guns" for a few jabs of his own.

"When you start pointing a finger at someone it's a personal gesture, and the arguments are no longer about arguments per se — it's about personalities," Kirk said.

The ethics expert added that while Romney's space invasion may not have helped his campaign, Perry's aggressive response might not have hurt.

Polls in the next day or so should show if Tuesday night's body language hurt... or helped.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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