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McCain's Age and Health, and the 2008 Election

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is in good general health and is free of skin cancer, according to a report by The Associated Press that cites the candidate's medical records. McCain's campaign is releasing his medical records today; AP reporters were granted early access to the files.

The records show that McCain has a strong heart, performs well in his annual physical examinations and is checked for skin cancer every few months, the AP reports. The files include eight years of medical history.

One vital statistic that you don't need an M.D. to understand is McCain's age: The Arizona senator is 71, older than any newly elected president. So far, his age doesn't seem to be working against him.

McCain confronted the age question head-on last weekend — not on one of the somber Sunday morning talk shows but on Saturday Night Live.

"Good evening, my fellow Americans," he said. "I ask you, what should we be looking for in our next president? Certainly someone who is very, very, very old."

The senator's comedy act was well received, even though for many voters, age is no laughing matter. More than a year ago, pollster Andy Kohut and the Pew Research Center asked voters which characteristics might make them more or less likely to vote for a presidential candidate. Few people said they'd be less likely to vote for one who was black or a woman. But half the voters told Kohut they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate in his 70s.

"A candidate in their 70s registered one of the highest 'I'd be less likely to vote for' responses — almost as high as a Muslim or someone who's never held office or someone who doesn't believe in God," Kohut says. "So the initial reaction in general terms about an older person is people are pretty upfront and say they have some reservations about it."

But those reservations don't seem to rub off on McCain. Only about 1 in 4 voters says he is too old to be president. Kohut says that number climbs slightly to about 1 in 3 voters, but only when pollsters point out that McCain is 71.

"Which is another way of saying he doesn't look his age. Or he doesn't appear as old as he is," Kohut says.

On the campaign trail, McCain appears vigorous and energetic — although in recent months his schedule has been considerably less taxing than those of his Democratic opponents. Kohut recalls that Bob Dole's age wasn't initially seen as a big factor in 1996, when Dole turned 73. But it became more of a drag as the campaign wore on.

"Not only did people see Senator Dole as old, they began to associate him with old ideas," Kohut says.

Political satirists hope to attach the same stigma to McCain with a YouTube video that points out some of the inventions that weren't around when he was born, including Barbie dolls, credit cards, the CIA and Minute Rice.

McCain himself sometimes plays into ageist stereotypes, like when he said Thursday that he can still picture the lawmakers behind the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. But on most days, he seems hipper than your average 71-year-old, joking about popular TV shows and appearing regularly with Jon Stewart. McCain can also point to his mother, who sometimes campaigns with him. Roberta McCain is still spunky and vivacious at 96.

McCain has already lived longer than either his father or grandfather. On Inauguration Day, he would be 2 1/2 years older than Ronald Reagan when he took the oath of office. Reagan, of course, went on to serve two full terms, after putting the age question to rest in a 1984 debate.

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign," he said. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Speaking of youth, Kohut's research found most voters no less likely to vote for a presidential candidate in his 40s, like Barack Obama.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.