In an unusual move, Mitt Romney placed his hand on Rick Perrys shoulder during… (Ethan Miller, Getty Images )
If the Shoulder Touch on the Strip had occurred in a Las Vegas bar, it might have had a different, perhaps bloodier, outcome.
But while Mitt Romney's reach-and-grab of Rick Perry sparked no fisticuffs, it served as a visual metaphor for an unusually feisty Republican presidential debate.
It also had observers split Wednesday over what former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, whose wingspan is impressive, was really trying to communicate — both to his Texas rival and to the 5.5 million viewers who watched the CNN debate.
About 42 minutes into Tuesday's debate at the Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas, in the midst of a heated exchange, Romney placed his hand on Texas Gov. Perry's shoulder, seemingly trying to calm him down. Or at least stop him from interrupting.
It was an incursion into a political rival's personal space — a move lasting a long couple of seconds that some observers thought dripped with condescension and intimidation, and others saw as benign.
The boundary violation is not unprecedented. Last month, in a gesture of consolation, Perry patted Romney on the back after debate moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Romney to tell Perry he deserved credit for the high job creation rate in Texas.
But Romney's gesture was different. For some, it recalled the decisive moment in September 2000 when Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio tried to intimidate rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in a debate by shoving a campaign pledge at her and demanding she sign it, or the moment the following month when then-Vice President Al Gore walked over to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's podium and Bush cut him down with a curt nod.
Matt Towery, an Atlanta-based nonpartisan pollster and onetime debate champion, thought Romney's gesture amounted to physical intimidation, intended to put an overly aggressive rival in his place.
"Perry came across as being too rough," said Towery, who has seen opponents shove each other, rip paper out of each other's hands and stick fingers in faces. But he still thought Romney erred.
"If any of my students had done that, I would have taken them to the woodshed," he said.
Others, like Stanley Renshon, a prolific author of books on politics and psychology, thought Romney's gesture was avuncular. "It's Romney, the elder statesman, putting his hand on a hothead's shoulder and saying, 'Son, calm down,' " Renshon said.
It's hard to know whether the gesture was rehearsed or spontaneous. It's possible that the cast members of the country's most consequential reality show — the Real Candidates of the GOP — are simply getting tired. With the first contest, in Iowa, only 76 days away, they could also be feeling a bit desperate.
Most seem to be looking for a game-changer.
Unexpected front-runner Herman Cain, a former business executive, touts his "9-9-9" tax plan. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has begun chiding his rivals for failing to talk about family values. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has heightened his criticism of politicians as "stupid." Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is suddenly appealing to "moms all across America." And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. boycotted the debate, holding a town hall meeting in New Hampshire instead. His tweeting daughters chided Perry and Romney: "This is what happens when the adult is no longer in the room."
The Touch took place after Perry, hammered repeatedly by Romney for giving college tuition support to illegal immigrants, dropped a leaf-blower bomb on Romney.
"You lose all standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home," Perry said.
(Several years ago, the Romneys used a gardening service at their Massachusetts home that employed illegal immigrants. They were told the service had fired the workers, but a year later, the firm still employed illegal immigrants. At that point, Romney fired the service. The story was discussed extensively in the 2008 campaign, but this was the first time a Romney rival had mentioned it this year.)
After a tense back-and-forth, with Perry interrupting his foe, Romney laid his left hand on Perry's right shoulder.
"This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you're going to get … testy," Romney said.
Translation: Pity the poor guy. He jumped into the race with 40% support in most polls, then plummeted like a rock after some shaky debate performances.
"Patronizing," said Perry Iowa strategist Robert Haus. "That's what came through in Romney's tone."
But Romney senior advisor Stuart Stevens defended his boss. Perry "was coming unglued," Stevens said. "It was like, 'Just settle down. We can talk. This isn't yell leader practice.' " (Perry was a yell leader at Texas A&M University.)
Perry's communications director, Ray Sullivan, didn't think Perry was too bothered. "Politics is a full-contact sport in Texas," he said, adding, "Mr. Romney clearly looked flustered and uncomfortable. I think there is a haughtiness and a discomfort with being held accountable for his own record."