Watching the Second Presidential Debate–With the Sound Off

As my colleagues listened to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's town hall debate Tuesday night, I pushed the mute button once again and prepared to determine a champion based on pantomime alone.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the second presidential debate at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Oct. 16, 2012.

In the first ever town hall-style debate between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, a single visual cue changed history: Bush looked down at his watch while an audience member asked a question, which is about as taboo as having pizza delivered on stage. So as my colleagues listened to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney‘s town hall debate Tuesday night, I pushed the mute button once again and prepared to determine a champion based on pantomime alone.

Both candidates were all smiles as they entered. In a reversal from their first meeting, Obama wore the fighter’s red tie this time. Romney wore the placid blue, slightly askew. The President gave someone a playful little finger wave, the kind you employ when you’re greeting an adorable toddler or saying “too-da-loo.” (One hopes this was directed at his wife Michelle, or perhaps an undecided toddler in the audience.) Both candidates took to their stools with equally casual one-foot-up perches as moderator Candy Crowley turned the proceedings over to the voters in the hall–the most poker-faced group of people this side of Johnny Chan.

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As in the first debate, the candidates diverged in the size of their gestures. Romney was an aircraft marshal, all arm sweeps and emphatic push-downs; Obama was much more contained, his movements smaller and softer. This dynamic had favored Romney when they were behind lecterns. Not so in the town hall. Where Obama had looked tired, he now seemed calm and composed. Where Romney had seemed energetic, he now looked over-the-top and a little condescending, like he was trying to teach kids how to play slow-pitch softball.

From the outset, Romney directly addressed Obama. And this time, Obama gave Romney the business, too. He interrupted his opponent; he shook his head and smirked during Romney’s responses, rather than staring at his notes like they were Magic Eye illusions. Obama more often addressed the broader audience. He confidently ambled toward Crowley as she introduced the questioners. He smiled. He laughed. At one point, I’m pretty sure he even winked at someone. That outrageous flirt almost made me think he was not having a terrible time.

Of course, the best parts were the intermittent showdowns. Early on Obama responded to what I can only assume was a rhetorical question from Romney. A back-and-forth ensued, and Romney gave up his microphone first. The next time, Romney took on Obama and the President retreated to his chair. Meanwhile, both of them kept pointing at “that crazy guy with his crazy ideas” while they explained their positions to voters. Crowley repeatedly got in the middle of things, sometimes sending the candidates to their seats like chided boys. At one point they both looked at her and, in close proximity, pointed at one another in perfect “he did it” synchronicity; if there’s a photo of that, it’ll be one for the front pages.

While Romney was talking, I was occasionally distracted by Obama’s eye flutters. Was it windy in there? Is he secretly battling glaucoma? For his sake, I certainly hope he’s not allergic to uncommitted voters. As the evening went on, I noticed Romney’s blink-rate betraying a sense of nervousness, too. For the next round of debate prep, I’d recommend a good chunk of time devoted to power-staring for both candidates, ideally at photographs of each other looking very serious.

This time there were no closing arguments. The final town hall questioner got his answers and the debate ended. Obama immediately turned to a voter and shook his hand, while Romney greeted his wife Ann. As the stream of Romney sons came forward to surround their father, Obama amassed a group of undecided voters around him. In silence at least, the second presidential debate seemed a feisty one, and the President looked like the winner.