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Obama and McCain: The Wrinkly Issue of Age

Obama, newly 47, has already been attacked for his experience. But will McCain, soon to turn 72, face similar age-related arguments?
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Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) celebrated his 47th birthday Monday at a fundraiser in Boston. His rival for the White House, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), will turn 72 on Aug. 29. McCain has already made Obama's lack of experience an arguing point in the election, but will McCain's age become an issue as well?

Obama has already faced the inexperience issue. While facing Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) in the Democratic primary, the Clinton campaign cast her as an experienced, battle-tested politician and Obama as inexperienced. The strategy, formulated by her infamous chief strategist, Mark Penn, worked insofar as Clinton was generally accepted as capable to be the commander-in-chief.

However, the inexperience attacks on Obam failed to damage his momentum. He developed a core bloc of supporters with African Americans, college kids and upper-middle class whites that stuck with him state after state. He also attracted significant numbers of independents in addition to Democrats. Many of his supporters saw his newness and message of change as a critical part of his appeal.

In essence, Obama's fresh face has boosted his candidacy. Many voters have become cynical and tired with the ways of Washington politicians -- just last week Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) was indicted -- and want someone who isn't a Beltway insider.

Obama's birthday wish? To win three important swing states: Colorado, Indiana and Virginia, according to a report in

The Washington Post

. The goal appears to be within reach. Democrats have made considerable gains in voter registration compared with Republicans. According to a

report in the New York Times

, Democrats have been gaining for more than three years now. Swing states like Iowa and Nevada have probably gone blue, and only a few very red states have gained more Republicans than Democrats, including Oklahoma, Kentucky and Louisiana.

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The combination of the two factors may mean the McCain campaign has already erred. They have chosen to follow Clinton's line of attack, calling Obama too inexperienced to lead. For example, on energy policy the campaign repeated attacks on Obama Tuesday: "And anybody who says that we can achieve energy independence without using and increasing these existing energy resources either doesn't have the experience to understand the challenge we face..."

If Obama were to win and be sworn in on Jan. 20 of next year, he wouldn't be close to the youngest president to assume the office. Theodore Roosevelt holds the distinction for youngest at 42 years and 10 months, followed by John Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Ulysses Grant. His age doesn't stand out compared to these well-known presidents.

If McCain were to win in November, he would be the oldest president elected. Polls have gone back and forth as to whether or not his age is of concern to voters. Ronald Reagan holds the record for oldest president assuming office less than a month before his 70th birthday.

McCain often uses Reagan's trick of humor to deflect questions on his age. Reagan said during a debate in 1984 with Walter Mondale, who was about 56 at the time: "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Reagan took office at the age of 69 and won re-election four years later at 73. McCain would be 76 and a half if he were to win a second term. McCain likes to say he's "older than dirt."

McCain mentions his mother, Roberta, when talking about his age. His 95-year-old mother has joined the campaign at various junctures. But I'm not sure the parallel works. The other highlight he uses on the campaign comes from his experiences in Vietnam. He was shot down and badly injured. His crash led to nearly six years in captivity by the North Vietnamese. During those years, he was tortured.

It is unclear what effects the time in prisoner of war camps has had on McCain's health. Furthermore, he has had a form of melanoma that presents a serious health issue. In 2000, the melanoma was treated by doctors leaving a mark on his face. His campaign recently issued a press release from the Mayo Clinic to assuage concerns about his health:

"Senator McCain visited the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, yesterday for a routine check of his dermatological health. The biopsy that was performed did not show any evidence of skin cancer. No further treatment is necessary."

A recurrence of cancer could seriously hamper his chances. McCain's friend and supporter Rudy Giuliani pulled out of the 2000 Senate race against Clinton due to cancer-related health issue.

Perhaps health, not age would be McCain's biggest problem.

Age and politics don't always go together. McCain may want to reassess his attacks on Obama, and Obama has to be careful not to mention McCain's age as well. People never like to be reminded how old they are. It could be interesting to note whether the media does the work for Obama as we get closer to McCain's 72nd birthday.