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Critics Try To Make McCain's Age An Issue

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.
John McCain is 71 years old. You would be hard pressed to argue that that's an insignificant number - it's only a few years less than the average lifespan of U.S. men, now about 75 years. But it perhaps does not have the sort of visceral impact that some of McCain's critics might wish it did.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, at 88, could be McCain's father, after all. Harrison Ford, who, at 65, is only a few years younger than McCain, is once again gallivanting through an Indiana Jones blockbuster. And an unprecedented number of Americans are crossing the threshold into retirement with the belief that they will stay active into their 80s and even 90s.

So what is someone who wants to spotlight McCain's age - and the questions they believe it raises about his presidential aspirations - to do? One strategy: Focus not on how old McCain is but on all that is younger than him. That's the concept behind, a Web site spotlighting some of the people and things that came into the world after the presumptive GOP nominee - among them Alaska, penicillin and Bugs Bunny, not to mention Barack Obama's parents.

"The world is a pretty complicated place right now and I'm thinking that it's not such a great time to elect our oldest President ever," writes the man behind the site, who wants only to be identified as Joe. "So sue me."

McCain, who had cancer surgery eight years ago, is today releasing almost 1,200 pages of long-withheld medical records, a stack of documents that he promises will contain "no surprises." But it's hard not to notice the timing of the release - the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, a date when any news pertaining to the health of the man who would be the oldest incoming president in American history is likely to effectively be buried. (Read more about McCain's medical records.)

McCain, who has seen his age become a punch line for late-night comedians, has tried to deflect the issue with humor.

"I ask you, what should we be looking for in our next president?" McCain said during an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend. "Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old."

"I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and, most importantly, the oldness necessary," he added. "The oldness it takes to protect America, to honor her, love her and tell her about what cute things the cat did."

McCain's use of humor to address the issue is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, who famously promised not to use 1984 presidential rival Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience against him." But Democrats hope McCain's age brings to mind another, less successful Republican nominee: Bob Dole, who ran for president in 1996 at age 73, and who was hard pressed to overcome the perception that he might be too old for the job. (Much-replayed video of Dole toppling from the stage at a California campaign rally didn't help.)

"I don't think the guy is losing it, but 72 is 72," said Democratic consultant Garry South, referencing McCain's age on inauguration day. South said that Democrats don't need to spotlight the Arizona senator's age because "it will be obvious to people," adding that a high-profile moment like Dole's fall could bring the issue into the public arena without Democrats having to take the somewhat unseemly step of bringing McCain's age up themselves.

Indeed, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said last month the he doubts "we will bring it up in the election," citing "a higher ethical bar" than Republicans. But some Republicans saw an implicit raising of the issue in Obama's recent statement to CNN that McCain had "lost his bearings" for suggesting that Hamas preferred that Obama become president.

"He used the words 'losing his bearings' intentionally, a not-particularly-clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue," McCain senior adviser Mark Salter said following the comments.

There is tempting evidence before Democrats considering spotlighting McCain's age. USA Today found that four in 10 Americans wouldn't support a 72-year old nominee. But a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll also found that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe McCain to be younger than he is.

A video released by the Democratic consulting firm the Organizing Group, dubbed "McAncient," seeks to change that perception. The video, which you can see here, features a crude-if-occasionally-clever song and lines like "He's older than his wife, a little younger than his mama/He's old enough to be one and a half Barack Obamas." The creators also maintain their own "Younger Than McCain" Web site.

One strategy McCain has deployed to blunt questions about his age has been to put his robust 95-year-old mother Roberta front and center, most recently in a Mother's Day ad. He has also cultivated a tireless persona on the campaign trail and highlighted a biography featuring not just wartime heroism but its fair share of youthful indiscretion.

But in an age when media outlets are speculating that McCain's advocacy for high-definition television might come back to haunt him because it exposes his "[w]rinkles, blotches, liver spots, scarry tissue" to the masses, it may be impossible to keep the issue below the radar until Election Day.

One advantage the Arizona senator has going for him in deflecting age-related criticism may be his opponent's youth: Obama is just 46 years old, and Republicans are already looking to hammer home the notion that he lacks the experience for the office. As he tries to allay concerns about his age, McCain can argue - implicitly, if not explicitly - that having a president on the older side of the spectrum is preferable to the alternative. And if he chooses a relatively youthful running mate, it could help put to rest some of the concerns of voters who fear for McCain's health while in office.
By Brian Montopoli