When it comes to senators hoping to make history with their presidential bids, Hillary Rodham Clinton (who would be the first woman to be president) and Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) are not the only ones. John McCain, 71, is hoping to become the oldest candidate ever elected to a first term in the White House.
The quest to win the presidency at an age when he would be too old to be a commercial airline pilot or even a judge in some states has already led Mr. McCain to adopt a more grueling campaign schedule, and a more vigorous style, than several of his younger rivals. Now that Mr. McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, political analysts say, his age will most likely factor into his selection of a running mate.
Some suggested Mr. McCain might want to tap a younger running mate to balance the ticket, particularly if he were to face a young opponent like Mr. Obama, 46. Others said his age would simply heighten his need to choose somebody whom voters would feel comfortable with as president should anything happen to him. (Not to be morbid, but eight vice presidents have succeeded presidents who died in office.)
Mr. McCain said in a recent interview that he had not even settled on how the vice presidential selection process would work, let alone whom it might select, but added, “We all know that the highest priority is someone who can take your place.”
The potential import of Mr. McCain’s choice of a running mate has prompted a political parlor game of who would be the best fit for the ticket. Quite a few of the names being bandied about are those of politicians in their 40s and 50s, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, 47; Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, 51, whose well-timed endorsement helped Mr. McCain win the crucial swing-state’s primary; Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, 47; and Rob Portman, 52, a former Ohio congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Mr. McCain’s advisers say the campaign has yet to discuss vice presidential prospects. “We haven’t spent one second talking about the selection of a running mate, and, as you know, he’s superstitious, so I doubt we will talk about it for a while,” said Charlie Black, a veteran of many Republican presidential campaigns. Asked about the age factor, he drew on his past campaign experience for an analogy of how it might weigh in the selection.
Reagan's 'age' issue
“Reagan had a quote ‘age’ issue in 1980,” Mr. Black said. “It wouldn’t go away until the day he picked George Bush as vice president. And then people said, well, here’s a known quantity, the guy has experience, including international experience, and, yeah, he could handle it.”
The subject of Mr. McCain’s age has come up, gingerly, on the campaign trail. When one of Mike Huckabee’s biggest supporters, Chuck Norris, 67, said after the South Carolina primary that he did not think Mr. McCain would have “the stamina to run the country for four years,” Mr. McCain responded with a crack that highlighted his gene pool. “I’m afraid that I may have to send my 95-year-old mother to wash Chuck’s mouth out with soap,” he said.
Mr. Obama seemed to call attention to Mr. McCain’s age with a bit more subtlety, telling a crowd this month, “Listen, I respect John McCain for his half-century of service to this country.” Mr. Obama has since dropped the “half-century” reference from similar lines. But he has drawn the distinction in other ways, as he did Tuesday in his speech after winning the Wisconsin primary when he said of Mr. McCain: “He represents the policies of yesterday. And we want to be the party of tomorrow.”
Mr. McCain, in his own speeches, frequently points to his experience.
“My friends, I’m not the youngest candidate,” Mr. McCain said after winning the Wisconsin primary, “but I am the most experienced.”
On the trail Mr. McCain has shown his vigor by keeping a punishing schedule that sometimes tired followers less than half his age. In New Hampshire, the state where he saved his struggling candidacy, he did 101 town-hall-style meetings. It was hardly unusual for him to conduct all-day, on-the-record, rolling news conferences aboard his bus, which were interrupted from time to time by a stop for a speech or a town-hall meeting. Unlike most candidates, Mr. McCain rarely paused to collect himself before those events: usually he would rise from the back of the bus, grab an index card reminding him which local dignitaries to thank and walk straight onto the stage.
But he does have white hair, scars from a bout with melanoma and limited flexibility from the injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And the fact remains that by the end of a second McCain term, he would be in his 80s.
When asked if he would consider running only for one term, he has always dismissed such a suggestion, as he did when he was asked about the possibility in January at a Fox News candidates’ forum.
“No, because I think then you’re the lame duck, you’re quacking on Inauguration Day,” he said. “But look, I would point out that when Ronald Reagan won the cold war, he was in his second term older than me. I think that’s pretty good, isn’t it? Look, I’ve got the vigor. I’ve been — everybody has seen me here on the campaign trail. We work 16, 18 hours a day.”
Jack F. Kemp, a McCain supporter who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 1996, when the presidential nominee, Bob Dole, was older than Mr. McCain, said Mr. McCain’s choice of a running mate held special significance.
'Very important for party regulars'
“I think his nominee, his choice for vice president, is going to be very important for party regulars, and also in terms of his or her capability someday to succeed as president,” Mr. Kemp said, noting that vice presidents usually eventually run for president.
Scholars of the vice presidency said that the age of Mr. McCain’s running mate would probably be just one factor in the selection process. The others would be ideology — some selections could be seen as rallying the conservative base, while others would be seen as reaching out to independent voters — and geography, either to appeal to a region or to try to nail down a state. But several said in interviews that competence would most likely trump the others.
“I think nowadays that any presidential candidate has to pick somebody who is a plausible president,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a professor of law at St. Louis University who studies the vice presidency. “I think you can’t put a bozo or a mediocrity on the ticket just because he is the most popular official in a state with 20-plus electoral votes.”
He continued, “Senator McCain’s age may make it marginally more important that he select a running mate who is perceived as presidential, but it’s a difference of degree.”
Some cautioned that picking too young a running mate might simply call attention to the age difference. “I don’t think McCain will have to worry much about finding a younger candidate — and he would be well advised to remember Dan Quayle if he does so,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “It’s not age that he will battle this fall, but vision.”
Kitty Bennett and Mark Leibovich contributed reporting.