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John McCain faces the age issue, head-on

January 2, 2008 |  5:04 pm

It is, admittedly, a tad premature since not one single primary or caucus vote has been cast yet. But if Arizona Sen. John McCain were to complete one of the most remarkable political comebacks in modern political history by winning the Republican nomination and then the 2008 general election, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated.

Which hasn't really seemed to be an issue yet, maybe because his cause seemed hopeless much of last year as he traveled the country alone in the back of commercial airplanes and, frankly, except for some slight impairment raising his arms high from his six years of torture as a Vietnam POW, McCain doesn't act or look 71. In fact, he's turned his age and military and Senate service into experience to argue he's the best-prepared to become president on Day 1.

Still, the subject does come up occasionally on the campaign trail, as it did just today in New Hampshire, where McCain is collecting virtually every newspaper endorsement, closing on front-runner Mitt Romney and thumped George W. Bush, the Iowa winner, by 19 points in 2000. The Arizonan was holding ....

a town hall meeting at Pembroke Academy today with The Times' Maeve Reston watching closely when a woman, one of about 100 audience members, asked him point-blank whether he had "the health and endurance to do eight years" in the White House.

Unruffled, the former fighter pilot replied in his typical straightforward manner: “If I said I was running for eight years," McCain said, "I’m not sure that would be a voter-getter.”

He added that he felt “vigorous” and could “out-campaign” any of his opponents.

Frankly, younger reporters trying to keep up with McCain don't doubt that. Lately, the senator starts his campaign days in the morning (today's was 8:45 a.m.). They can last 14 hours with up five or six appearances, talks and Q & A's with up to 400 people before returning to his hotel as late as 10 p.m. Rather than slow down, McCain seems to gain energy as the long days wear on.

Even on a Sunday like last weekend, one of his lightest days in recent weeks, he began with an early-morning headliner appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" followed by a campaign office party, a house party and another town hall meeting. Each required speaking without notes, and he revealed no stumbles.

McCain told disbelieving reporters he had, in fact, lightened his daily workload because his wife, Cindy, "the wimp," had rejoined her husband following knee surgery.

In today's answer to the woman, McCain did, however, seem to contemplate a one-term presidency. “You shouldn’t run for eight years," McCain said, "because then you think you’ve got eight years to get these things done. We don’t have eight years to fix Social Security and Medicare. We don’t have eight years to secure our borders so that we can stop the flood of illegal immigrants into this country.… We’ve got to get going right away from Day 1. So all I can say is, I’m running for a four-year term.”

Later on his bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain clarified that he was not ruling out an eight-year, two-term presidency. And nobody laughed.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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