WASHINGTON—Sen. John McCain of Arizona will do something next week that'll set him apart from everyone else who's weighing a run for president in 2008.
He'll celebrate his 70th birthday Tuesday.
That would put him in uncharted political territory should he win the presidency: No one older than 70 has ever moved into the White House.
Not only will the Republican senator be the oldest of the large field of possible candidates in both major parties, he'll be three years older on Election Day 2008 than Ronald Reagan was when he won his first term in 1980. At 69, Reagan was the oldest man ever to enter the White House. He was 73 when he won his second term.
Whether this changes the presidential campaign probably will depend on whether McCain appears healthy and vigorous—and thus up to the unique demands of the job—or not.
McCain aides said the senator was cancer-free six years after surgeons removed thin tumors from his temple and arm. Both were diagnosed as malignant melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer if left untreated. He also had a bout with skin cancer in 1993.
And they say he's more energetic than many much younger men.
"His health is fine," said John Weaver, his chief political strategist.
"Just this month, he backpacked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim with his son, he went on a weeklong tour campaigning for people and he's about to lead a delegation on a multi-nation tour of Eastern Europe."
Weaver noted that McCain would still be younger than Reagan was when Reagan sought and won his second term. He also stressed that McCain is a key player in the Senate, where he's personally involved in numerous issues and negotiations.
In time, he suggested, voters will see for themselves.
"They'll see that if he chooses to run. They'll see how vibrant he is."
If that's not enough, Weaver also suggested considering McCain's genes.
"His mother, at 95, just returned from Europe, where she keeps a car and drove herself across the continent," he said. "He comes from good stock."
Yet it's not just the state of a candidate's health on Election Day that matters. The elderly face a greater risk of developing problems in the years ahead, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, infection, Alzheimer's or even death.
"No matter how healthy the elderly candidate for the presidency appears to be, there is a significant likelihood that he will not survive or that his intellectual powers and leadership ability may be compromised, far more so than among those in their 50s," two Stanford University scholars wrote in a study after Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, when Dole was 73.
But public reaction to McCain's age will depend on how he looks and sounds.
"There's no question that the senator's going to have to reassure people that his health is good," said Dan Schnur, an aide in McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who's now a Republican strategist in California.
"But in this day and age, my guess is there are very few voters who think that 70 is too old. ... People are living longer. The percentage of the population that lives well beyond 70 and stays active and engaged well beyond 70 is much greater than it was 30 years ago."
Indeed, the census shows that the number of Americans 65 and older increased by more than 14 million from 1970 to 2000, and they increased as a share of the population from 9.9 percent to 12.4 percent.
"Older voters have a tendency to scrutinize more. They know what it's like to be old," said independent pollster John Zogby, who's conducted polls for McCain in the past. Yet they respond positively if they're satisfied that an older candidate is healthy, he said.
A potential complicating factor: the fact that Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease after leaving office.
"It all depends on health," Zogby said. "If he is seen as healthy and is perceived as robust, it matters less."
Image also plays a role.
Reagan, for example, was the picture of ruddy health, often shown chopping wood or riding horses at his California ranch. His campaigns, as well, stressed almost youthful optimism about the future, right down to his 1984 theme that it was "morning in America."
By contrast, Republican presidential nominee Dole struggled with the fact that he was the oldest first-term major candidate in history. Zogby noted that Dole did poorly among the elderly. And when Dole offered himself as a "bridge" to the past, baby boomer President Bill Clinton made his re-election campaign theme "a bridge to the 21st century," and won easily.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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