WESTMINSTER, Colo. — A lot of people in this swing state, and around the nation, see John McCain as a "wrinkly white-haired guy," and it's hurting him.
Celebrity Paris Hilton coined the term recently as a joking reference to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But polls and conversations with voters find that McCain's age — he'll turn 72 later this month — is on many minds.
"Absolutely, he's too old. How many 72-year-olds do you know who can work a 60-hour week?" asked Karen Dunn, a teacher in this Denver suburb.
Paul Muller, a Denver laborer, thought of his father, who's about McCain's age. "Dad's a happy-go-lucky guy who's enjoying himself. That's what McCain should be doing," Muller said.
If he's elected, McCain would be the oldest person ever sworn in for a first White House term. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he took office and 73 at his second inauguration.
Twenty-one percent of voters told a Pew Research Center survey in June that McCain was too old to be president, making age a "potentially important factor" in the election, said Michael Dimock, the Pew center's associate director for research.
Compounding the issue is McCain's appearance. His Vietnam injuries make it hard for him to raise his arms. His left cheek protrudes somewhat, the result of melanoma surgery eight years ago, and last month he had a small patch of skin removed from the right side of his face. A biopsy found no evidence of cancer.
"Senator McCain enjoys excellent health and displays extraordinary energy," Dr. John Eckstein of the Mayo Clinic, who's supervised McCain's cancer treatment for the past 16 years, said earlier this year.
McCain, who's released full statements by his doctors and posted them on his Web site, jokes about his age and notes that his 96-year-old mother is still going strong. Supporters dismiss the concerns by pointing not only to his good health but also to his long resume.
"Obama is too young. McCain has all that experience," said Phyllis Cordova, a Walsenburg restaurant owner. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is 47.
McCain faces a multitude of problems over the age issue, however, notably a generational divide over its meaning.
People who are young enough to be McCain's children or grandchildren sometimes view him as out of touch and susceptible to illness. Older people, feeling their own age-induced limitations, wonder how he can keep up.
"I don't think I should run for president," chuckled Bill Butler, 80, of North Boulder.
"I'm 80, and I forget things all the time," added Alma Mandarich, a Wheat Ridge retiree. "I see McCain showing his age. I think one reason his wife stands in back of him all the time is to tell him what to say."
Younger people often can't fathom the idea of someone so old running the country.
"I don't like the idea of his being 80 at the end of his second term," said Ben Whitehair, 22, a Denver actor.
It's unclear, though, whether age will trump the economy, Iraq and other concerns as a defining part of voters' decisions. Among some swing voters, for instance, doubts about Obama trump doubts about McCain's age.
Kathy Zugt, a Walsenburg clerk, dislikes both candidates. A Democrat, she called McCain "too old," noting: "As people get up in age, they get sick more often. And McCain has had cancer."
But she's not crazy about Obama. "I don't think we're ready for him," she said, because of his race. "There's still too much hate and discontent."
Roger Dickman, a Littleton dishwasher, is willing to put aside concerns about McCain because "Obama's for change, but what does that mean?"
Republicans try to counter concerns about age by urging voters to look at other factors. That's how Melissa Hessler, 32, a stay-at-home mother, was won over.
"He's in his 80s, right?" she asked as she stopped to talk about McCain on Main Street in Walsenburg.
Mary Copeland, the secretary of the Huerfano County Republican Party, heard the question.
"Age is in your head," Copeland said politely. "I know someone who was old at 40. She thought like an older person."
Hessler smiled. "My grandma's 93, and her cousin lived to be 105," she said.
Copeland was getting through. "Now think of all that stuff John McCain went through in Vietnam," she said. McCain was a Vietnam prisoner of war for five and a half years.
Hessler seemed convinced. "I do like his war record," she said. "He shows a lot of strength."
Whether or not the Copelands of the country can convince the Hesslers could be a key to McCain's presidential fortunes, but it's a tough sell.
"Look at how presidents age once they're in office. McCain has nowhere to go," said Tina DeSautels, a Lafayette labor union official. "He already looks like he's struggling."
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