By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
In a preview of what could become a central theme of the fall presidential campaign, New Jersey's Democratic voters will answer a question today that may weigh heavily on John McCain's prospects in November: Just how old is too old?
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, 84, is facing a primary challenge from Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), who has made the octogenarian's age, his competence and the energy he brings to the job the defining issues of his underdog campaign.
Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of politics in New Jersey, ads run by the 50-year-old Andrews calling Lautenberg too old to be effective stand out. "Now Lautenberg will be 91 at the end of his term. Ninety-one," the narrator says in the ad, which ran in the New York and Philadelphia media markets, two of the most expensive in the nation. "Newspapers have said it's time for a change."
The ads clearly struck a nerve with Lautenberg, who would actually be 90 at the end of a fourth term in early January 2015, and his campaign hit back with ads criticizing Andrews for his effort to round up Democratic votes for the October 2002 Iraq war resolution, betting that Lautenberg's consistent liberal ideology will trump any effort to say he's too old for the task.
His supporters say that any candidate -- whether Andrews or Sen. Barack Obama, 46, in the fall presidential race against McCain -- would be making a serious mistake in seeking to exploit the age issue, arguing that it would only result in a backlash from elderly voters.
"Absolutely I think it would be a huge mistake for the Democratic nominee to raise the age issue against McCain, just as it was wrong for Rob to do to Frank. . . . Seniors do not appreciate being told that they can't be effective," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), a Lautenberg supporter.
Andrews's campaign offers no apologies and cited the likely Obama-McCain matchup as the inspiration for their effort to put Lautenberg's age front and center.
"Age is very much an issue. It's on people's minds. Age is in the public consciousness," said Michael Murphy, campaign chairman for Andrews.
Murphy cited to skits on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" last week about the release of Obama's health report coming on the heels of McCain's health report. He pointed out that Lautenberg retired in 2000 and returned in 2002 without the seniority accrued in his first 18 years in the Senate: "Do you want an 84-year-old sophomore, or a 50-year-old freshman? We're using Frank's chronological seniority to our advantage."
He also pointed to Lautenberg's first Senate race in 1982, when he questioned whether then-Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R), 72 at the time, was fit for the job. "This [ad campaign] would have been difficult but for the fact that Frank Lautenberg wrote the script for us in 1982," Murphy said.
Age has always been a touchy subject in the Senate, where Lautenberg is among 10 current members who are 75 or older. Several in that group have fallen ill in the past year: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who underwent brain surgery yesterday; Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's disease; Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who was diagnosed with a brain disease; and John W. Warner (R-Va.), who has been treated for abnormal heartbeats since last fall.
Domenici, 76, and Warner, 81, have announced their intention to retire at the end of this year.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who turned 90 in November, remains chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee despite suffering from a tremor and three hospitalizations this year, the most recent coming last night [Story, A2].
McCain's presidential candidacy has raised the age issue to its greatest political prominence since Ronald Reagan batted back a question in 1984 by promising not to exploit the "youth and inexperience" of Democratic presidential challenger Walter Mondale in 1984. If elected, McCain would be 72 next January, the oldest person ever sworn in for their first term as president.
Obama has yet to raise the issue directly. The McCain campaign has reacted with ferocity at what it perceives to be even subtle hints aimed at bringing attention to McCain's age, most notably when Obama questioned in early May whether McCain was "losing his bearings" over Middle East peace issues.
But there has been nothing subtle about Andrews's attacks on Lautenberg. In the only televised debate Lautenberg agreed to, Andrews accused the incumbent of making "a commitment to run a vigorous campaign" and said, "I believe he has not done that."
Murphy, the top Andrews adviser, said Andrews, a backer of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is also trying to frame himself as an "agent of change" like Obama. "Maybe 90, 91 years old at the end of another term will give voters pause," he said, defending hard-hitting ads with the number 91 splashed across the screen.
Ahead comfortably in most polls, Lautenberg has focused his campaign on Andrews's dalliances with the Bush White House on Iraq and his own legislative record since first joining the Senate in 1983, while taking every chance to show off his energy.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) was one of many national figures brought in to stump for Lautenberg and tout his effectiveness in the Capitol. "Have they gone helicopter-skiing with this guy?" the Foreign Relations Committee chairman asked local reporters last week. "Find me someone 60 or any age that has more energy than Frank Lautenberg."