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Speaking Style Says Volumes About GOP Race

Apart from his values and agenda, Carson’s appeal rests on his sincerity, plain speaking style and sense of humor. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In a race filled with plenty of fast-talking, quick-tongued hopefuls — including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and, at one point, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — Ben Carson stands out as very different, and not only because of his race, resume and life accomplishments.

The retired pediatric neurosurgeon often lacks the other candidates’ intensity, and at times seems about to doze off for a quick nap (even in the middle of an answer). But if you focus on that part of his style and delivery, you are missing his appeal.

As I watched Carson’s Veterans Day speech at Liberty University and reflected on the first few GOP debates, I concluded that he has resonated with some voters precisely because he is unlike those candidates who have talked for a living their whole lives. Apart from his values and agenda, his appeal rests on his sincerity, plain speaking style and sense of humor.

The question now, after the attacks in Paris and the increased salience of terrorism and the U.S. response to it, is whether Carson’s style still works.

The fastest talker during the GOP debates probably was Jindal, who has exited the race. His sentences usually were long but well organized. He obviously was very comfortable talking to an audience, with few hesitations or stumbles. But he too often sounded like a computer, spitting out pre-programmed words and phrases.

In other words, Jindal sounded like a professional speaker and politician. He had a quick answer for every question, and his verbal patter often degenerated into a long list of platitudes strung together. He might have been better off had he paused in responding to questions, appearing more thoughtful and reflective.

Rubio’s speaking style is similar to Jindal’s, but the Florida Republican uses fewer ideological buzzwords and talks more about change, opportunity and the future. He stumbles over a word here or there but generally is a polished and talented communicator.

But Rubio also can sometimes appear to be on autopilot, with words and ideas gushing out of his mouth faster than listeners can consume them. I wonder whether over the long haul Rubio’s current style will make him appear less natural and authentic.

Trump is on the opposite end of the speaking continuum from Rubio and Jindal. His responses to questions are often choppy and inarticulate. He repeats words and phrases, but not in complex well-formed sentences or thoughts. This gives him a non-politician quality to some, I suppose, though to others he surely appears undisciplined and lacking seriousness.

Of course, his language, tone and volume almost always convey a sense of self-confidence and dynamism. In a world of terrorists and illegal aliens, Trump’s style says, “I am a leader.”

Cruz is as smooth a talker as anyone in the race, as confident as is Jindal, Rubio or Trump. He obviously is among the best debaters and public speakers in the field.

The Texas senator’s presentation is fluid but not rushed. He gestures often, modulating his voice and pausing for emphasis when it is effective. He presents his thoughts logically and seems to be having a conversation with the audience. (See the Part 7 at about 5:30 in the stream.) While he is a polished speaker and professional talker, he comes across as natural to voters (though for insiders, nothing about Cruz is entirely “natural.”)

Carson has had a difficult couple of weeks, though because of substance (or lack of it), not style. His style remains an asset.

For months, I’ve seen many comments noting that Carson disappears during debates or speaks so softly that he comes across as indecisive, sleepy and timid. But Carson’s sincerity and the strong dose of humility continue to be qualities play well to his potential voters, including evangelicals and conservatives tired of traditional politicians.

Other than South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Carson is one of the few candidates in the race who is self-deprecating, an attractive quality to many voters, who are tired of slick-talking pols and believe that no mortal has all the answers to the nation’s problems. (See his comments starting at about 5:25 of his Veterans Day comments at Liberty University.)

And Carson doesn’t present his thoughts in a torrent of words that overwhelm the listener. He often pauses. He seems to reach for the right word or acknowledge his own shortcomings.

Consider the list of our most recent presidents. Some were (and are) extremely articulate, while others have been noticeably less so. But most understood the importance of the pause and of a conversational speaking style.

Barack Obama is a terrific speaker, but he chooses his words carefully. George W. Bush certainly was not the best orator. Bill Clinton knew how and when to bite his lip, when to shake his head. Ronald Reagan understood phrasing. Jimmy Carter certainly was no fast-talker.

I am certainly not suggesting that Carson is a novice speaker — he spoke at the 1997 and 2013 National Prayer Breakfast and has done many interviews — or that he will become another Obama or Reagan. But he does not talk like someone who has been in politics his whole life, and that is an asset.

But at some point, substance becomes important to voters too, and some of Carson’s recent comments have left many thoughtful people scratching their heads in bewilderment. That may be one reason why some Carson supporters seem to be moving toward Cruz, who has much in common with Carson — both in terms of style and substance — but is more experienced and substantive on matters of policy.


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