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Screengrab from video of Ontario election debate on September 27, 2011 (Screengrab from YouTube/Screengrab from YouTube)
Screengrab from video of Ontario election debate on September 27, 2011 (Screengrab from YouTube/Screengrab from YouTube)

McGuinty's busy hands: Reading the Liberal Leader's debate body language Add to ...

Taxes and health-care and electricity costs were the traditional items on the bill of fare of the Ontario televised debate. What wasn’t expected was Dalton McGuinty’s body language.

The usually wooden Liberal Leader surprised viewers with his broad hand gestures, a repertoire of palm-waving, index-pointing, finger-ticking moves that lit up online comments and became a fodder for jokes.

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“If we could harness McGuinty's hands, we'd have a ton of wind power energy right there,” businesswoman Karen Siwak tweeted.

“If Dalton McGuinty proved anything tonight it's that he would make a great third-base coach,” wrote University of Victoria political scientist Emmett Macfarlane.

Overnight, a satirical Tweeter account sprang up, with entries such as: “I was going for something between Kate Bush and the Safety Dance. Only time will tell if I succeeded.”

By Wednesday morning, the spin from Liberal insiders was that it was necessary for Mr. McGuinty to show passion, in order to prove he has the fire in his belly needed for a third term.

But even senior Liberals were caught off guard by how that manifested itself. The hand gestures in particular were not part of rehearsals, they said.

Campaign chair Greg Sorbara, who is also running in the Vaughan riding, said there was no strategy to the hand-waving - no deliberate effort to make Mr. McGuinty act more animated.

Rather, he said that he sent Mr. McGuinty a note the day before the debate, telling him to “just enjoy yourself” as he tells Ontarians “where we need to go” over the next four years.

“When the Premier is really driven by the ideas that he is talking about he is always animated. As an Italian ... if he had have done that debate in Italian you wouldn’t even be asking the question,” said Mr. Sorbara, noting that he is of Italian heritage and cannot talk without using his hands.

Also, Mr. Sorbara joked “He has beautiful hands.”

An aide said the leader was simply being himself. She added that any reporter who has been in a scrum with Mr. McGuinty knows how much he can use his hands - he hits boom microphones and other objects often.

One body-language expert said he suspected Mr. McGuinty was trying to address his tendency to stick his left hand in his pocket when he speaks.

“My feeling is that probably he was getting advice or was aware of that so he probably overcompensated,” said Ric Phillips, communications coach and president of 3V Communications.

The flaying hand gestures were more pronounced toward the last quarter of the debate, Mr. Phillips noted, when Mr. McGuinty would have been more tired and frustrated from an evening fending off attacks from Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Because today's politicians tend to speak in similar cautious, evasive fashion, Mr. Phillips said, their body language has an impact on how voters perceive them.

“If they all sound the same, we'll judge them on their non-verbal language.”

It wasn’t a fatal flaw, however, Mr. Phillips said, giving the incumbent premier good marks for his verbal delivery.

He said Mr. McGuinty’s hand gestures will be an amusing footnote without longer impact, much like viewers of this spring’s federal leaders debate were commenting on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s intense eye-contact with the camera -- a tic that didn’t prevent him from scoring well in other areas.

With files from Adam Radwanski and Jane Taber

Follow on Twitter: @TuThanhHa

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