In a campaign year marked by flare-ups surrounding comments that have offended one group or another, John McCain and Barack Obama have moved on to the next sensitive battleground: the question of McCain's advanced age.
As some Republicans see it, Democrats are deliberately talking in code about the presumptive 71-year-old GOP nominee as part of an attempt to highlight his age.
"It is code; there is no question it is," Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who helped lead President Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, said when age surfaced as an issue. "They are trying to raise doubts."
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough repeatedly argued on his show last week that the Obama campaign was portraying McCain as a "doddering, old, confused fool. He needs to go to Miami Beach and play checkers."
To Democrats, however, Republicans are imagining slights and smears where there are none as part of an attempt to silence any discussion of McCain's vigor.
"They are definitely trying to just put a lid on the kind of language we use," said Democratic consultant Jonathan Prince.
Obama aides deny any strategy to highlight age, and Obama, 46, himself told reporters last month that age should not be a factor. Indeed, he used to compliment McCain's "half-century of service" to the country as a Vietnam War veteran and a member of Congress, but after McCain campaign manager Rick Davis argued that it was a sly way to inject age into the debate, Obama dropped the reference in February.
But a Democratic strategist not involved in the campaign, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said he sees footprints of a deliberate Obama campaign strategy.
"They have made allusions to McCain's age and temperament because, with McCain, both his age and his volatile temper are legitimate issues. There is a line of appropriateness that they cannot cross. And I don't think they have," the strategist said.
Certainly there have been times when Democrats have tackled the issue head-on, as Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has several times in recent months.
"The older you get, the more difficult it is to have the energy to confront these things," Murtha, who turns 76 on Tuesday, said in an interview with ThinkProgress, a liberal blog. "I know myself. I have to pace myself. I'm the same age he is. He said I was senile a couple of years ago. Well, that's beside the point, whether I'm senile. But I just believe that his age is going to be very difficult for him to become a good commander in chief, because the decisions are so difficult."
The issue is no small matter for McCain. Polls in recent months found voters more likely to take into consideration his age than Obama's race, which explains why the McCain campaign has turned into ersatz word police, calling foul on even the slightest hint of a reference to the Republican's age.
McCain senior adviser Mark Salter rebuked Obama last month for saying that the Arizonan was "losing his bearings." Obama, who was defending against charges that Hamas wanted him to win in November, protested that the phrase has nothing to do with age.
But when Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) each described McCain as "confused" last week, Republicans became convinced that Democrats intend to run a crypto-ageist strategy, using words that create a subtle impression in voters' minds.
McCain himself did little to wave reporters off the narrative.
"I'm obviously disappointed in a comment like that," McCain said when asked about Kerry's statement that the Republican "confuses" facts about Iran, Al Qaeda, and Sunni and Shiite Muslis.
Kerry called the suggestion that his comments had something to do with age "unfair and even ridiculous."
But the dynamic of Obama's running against a candidate who's a quarter of a century older is nonetheless creating an environment where some Democrats see the need to self-censor, proving that the McCain offensive is already working.
"I was going to say, 'He lost his grip,'" said Democratic consultant Jonathan Prince, recalling a recent appearance on CNN's "Situation Room." "Those are normal words you use when you are involved in campaigns. You say, 'They are nuts, they are off their rocker, they lost it.' They have become very adept at grabbing every opportunity they can to turn it into a personal slur."
By Carrie Budoff Brown