- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Barack Obama goes airborne in a doozy of a bear hug with a pizza guy in Florida. Joseph R. Biden cozies up with a biker chick in Ohio. Paul Ryan encircles a campaign supporter in North Carolina in a double-armed embrace. Even the more reserved Mitt Romney seems to be loosening up some with people he meets on the campaign trail.

Kissing babies and slapping backs are so yesterday.

The 2012 candidates are putting their all into the campaign cliche of pressing the flesh.

“America’s become more touchy-feely,” says Lillian Glass, a body language expert based in Los Angeles. “That’s what they want in their candidates, and that’s what they’re getting.”

The candidates are “going after personal likability,” says Ms. Glass. “We love genuineness in our politicians, we love that warmth, and we love somebody that we can relate to.”

Politicians have always tried to connect with voters.

Al Gore’s long smooch with then-wife Tipper after his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 led some people to look at him in a new light.

Mr. Romney, for his part, delivered a more standard “Bye honey, see you tonight” kiss on his wife’s lips on his convention stage this year.

But he does seem more at ease now than back during the primaries, when he rather awkwardly pretended that a waitress at a New Hampshire diner had goosed him.

Gerald R. Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, says the GOP nominee seems more spontaneous in his recent interactions with voters. “And that’s something he needs to do,” says Mr. Shuster, “to take away the rap on him that he’s cold and aloof from the audience.”

Mr. Romney’s running mate is a more physical campaigner.

When Mr. Ryan is announced to a crowd, he often shakes hands and gives high-fives and quick hugs to folks who press up against the waist-high metal barriers that hold back the audience. After events, he lingers, posing for pictures, hugging anyone who wants his embrace, often using both hands to touch the crowd.

Mr. Obama, at times, comes across more as the recipient of campaign love than the dispenser.

In July, he began an appearance in West Palm Beach, Fla., by remarking that he’d just received “the most kisses I’ve gotten at any campaign event.” And when a phone went off during his remarks, Mr. Obama speculated that it was his wife, Michelle.

“She heard all those women were kissing me,” he joked. “She got a little nervous. She’s feeling a little jealous.”

Of course, Mrs. Obama has her own reputation as a liberal dispenser of hugs wherever she goes.

The barriers between presidential candidates and the public gradually have gotten higher in the years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the attempts on the lives of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

Bill Clinton chafed at the restrictions and still managed to maintain plenty of contact with people.

But Mr. Shuster says the restrictions aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the view of many candidates, who don’t always want to chat up every voter in sight.

“I honestly feel like they like the fact that the Secret Service has not permitted them to do things like that,” he says. “It could go on forever.”

John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, was known to discreetly pump some hand sanitizer after making contact with voters. Secret Service agents carried some for Mr. Clinton, too. Candidates want the public’s votes — not their germs.

In the case of the pizza guy’s powerlift of the president, Scott Van Duzer said Secret Service agents told him he “was all right as long as I didn’t take him away.”

Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said that when candidates are out in public, agents “are constantly making assessments on the appropriateness of the behavior of the people” around them. He added that in this case, the agents “felt that the behavior was appropriate and was consistent with the event.”



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