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Body Language: Watching the Debate on Mute

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Michael Reynolds/AP

You might have watched the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan. But you haven’t heard this version of events, heard being the operative word. This is what happened in the debate as viewed without the volume and without the aide of Twitter. Here’s the vice presidential debate boiled down to only the guffaws, grimaces, and finger-pointing.

These guys wanted to be there, they enjoyed their time under that Giant Eagle. If President Obama hurt himself in the first debate by looking bored or put out, Ryan and Biden got the memo. They were engaged. They jabbed, crossed, and flashed broad smiles, Biden nearly always showing his super-white teeth. Their experience in Congress showed. These were two candidates used to persuading people, used to bringing people around to their way of thinking.

Ryan was at his strongest in the beginning and at the end of the debate when he was the guy explaining that the Wizard of Oz was just a guy hiding behind a big mask. (Not sure who the flying monkeys are in this scenario.) He seemed to pile point on top of point. It was like watching someone do simple addition. It seemed to make sense.

Biden, who frequently looked like he was measuring the height, width and length of things, was at his strongest in the middle, when the gesticulating died down. He hit his stride and he was Edward R. Murrow, a trusted figure delivering a serious newscast.

The gestures and the broad smiles were more of a crutch for Biden’s arguments than an aide to them. The waving and finger-pointing distracts from, well, whatever he was saying, and Ryan’s smirking during the most gesture-filled answers gave the impression that the answer was more street magician sleight-of-hand than vice presidential pronouncement.

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Michael Catalini

Michael Catalini is a staff correspondent covering the U.S. Senate at National Journal Daily. Previously at National Journal, he reported on national politics and was deputy editor of Influence Alley, covering Congress and K Street. Before joining National Journal he oversaw coverage of the Baltimore Ravens at The Baltimore Sun. While at The Sun, he also pioneered the use of live-streaming video, organized and edited online content and wrote breaking and feature news. He graduated from Penn State with a bachelor's degree in journalism and has a master's degree in government from Johns Hopkins.

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