- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007


John McCain, 70 and scarred, cannot deny his age. So he laughs at it.

“I’m older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I learned a few things along the way,” jokes the Republican presidential candidate, who tries to play down the ravages of time for the wisdom acquired over seven decades.

His body is battered from torture in Vietnam. The scar along his left cheek is a reminder of a different battle, with skin cancer. Yet Mr. McCain packs his workdays so tight that aides grouse. And the man who could be the oldest first-term president hiked the Grand Canyon from “rim to rim” last summer.

Despite Mr. McCain’s high-energy lifestyle, getting older begets questions about health. The four-term Arizona senator no doubt will have to prove to voters that he is physically and mentally up to the demanding job of president.

Two recent surveys found that people are less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is older than 72 than they would a candidate who has been divorced twice, as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has, or a candidate who is a Mormon, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is.

While neither man has made an issue of Mr. McCain’s age or health — both men have seen their 60th birthdays and Mr. Giuliani also is a cancer survivor — others are expressing doubts. In Michigan, Jerry Roe, a Republican who is a former state Republican Party executive director, backed Mr. McCain in 2000 but supports Mr. Romney this time. “McCain’s too old,” he said recently.

“He looks tired. He looks like he’s dragging,” added Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina who says he is not aligned with a candidate.

Mr. McCain is determined to counter the notion that his age and health are hurdles, and he does not hide his distaste for the topic when questioned.

“I work seven days a week, 16-plus hours a day. I’m fine. I’m in great health,” the Arizona senator tells anyone who asks.

To drive home the point, he talks about his Grand Canyon hike and notes that his spunky 95-year-old mother still drives and recently traveled through Europe. Campaigning, Mr. McCain seeks to counter skeptics who question his vigor.

On the first day of a two-day Iowa bus tour, he talked nonstop for hours to reporters traveling with him. He met with Iowa legislators. He hosted two question-and-answer sessions with hundreds of Iowans. He held several news conferences.

“He wears me out. I can’t keep up with him,” said his wife, Cindy, 52.

Still, despite Mr. McCain’s best efforts, he cannot seem to escape the age questions.

“You had a birthday,” late-night comedian David Letterman mentioned last month.

“Tragically,” the candidate said dryly.

Hundreds of health records made available during Mr. McCain’s first presidential run in 2000 consistently gave him a clean bill of mental health despite long periods in solitary confinement in Vietnam. He continues to be inquisitive and quick-witted, judging by his exchanges on Capitol Hill with colleagues.

“He’s as alert as he was 18 years ago when I went to work for him. He’s as healthy as a horse,” said Mark Salter, a longtime aide.

The campaign plans to release his updated health records to prove it. Aides are confident that voters will see it for themselves as the senator steps up his campaigning.

But more than 20 years ago, Ronald Reagan — who was 69 when he was first elected and 73 during his 1984 re-election race — was facing the same question: Was he too old for the job. In a debate with his 56-year-old Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, a straight-faced Mr. Reagan defused the issue, saying gravely: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

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