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Is McCain's Age Showing? Tongues Wag Over Flubs

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We interrupt the nonstop coverage of Barack Obama's overseas trip to bring you some breaking whispers about John McCain.

He has been making a series of verbal slips -- invariably described as "gaffes" -- that are starting to ricochet from liberal blogs to the mainstream media. And fairly or not, some critics are suggesting the 71-year-old Republican candidate is showing his age.

McCain referred to the "Iraq-Pakistan border" in a "Good Morning America" interview; since there is no such border, he must have meant Afghanistan-Pakistan. He has twice referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993; mixed up Sunnis and Shiites; and identified Vladimir Putin as president of Germany.

Aides to the Arizona senator dismiss the missteps as meaningless, noting that their man is far more accessible to journalists than Obama. "When you engage with reporters from 8:30 a.m. till 8 at night, you're bound to make a gaffe," says McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker. "People are yearning for the kind of president who takes tough questions, and that's who John McCain is."

As for the candidate's septuagenarian status, Hazelbaker says: "I'd encourage anyone who has concerns about John McCain's age to join him on the campaign trail. He keeps an exhausting schedule -- often visiting two or three states a day -- answering dozens of questions from voters and the media along the way."

With Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams traveling overseas to interview Obama this week, a debate has erupted over the imbalance in media attention. Last week, says a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of print and electronic coverage, Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 83 percent of election stories, and McCain in 52 percent. The McCain camp yesterday sent out a mocking video compilation of pundits praising the Illinois Democrat, saying: "The media is in love with Barack Obama. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny."

But there is a counter-narrative, which has taken root on the left, that McCain is the one being treated with journalistic kid gloves. In this view, Obama's every utterance is scrutinized, while McCain, who enjoyed warm relations with reporters during his 2000 White House campaign, pays little price for blunders.

Dan Abrams, the host of MSNBC's "Verdict," told viewers Monday that "gaffe after gaffe after gaffe come from John McCain, and they are forgotten. . . . There is no way Barack Obama would be able to get away with something like this."

Politico catalogued the errors on its Web site yesterday, saying: "McCain's mistakes raise a serious, if uncomfortable question: Are the gaffes the result of his age? And what could that mean in the Oval Office?"

The question is fair, says veteran analyst Charlie Cook of National Journal. "People wonder if McCain is kind of like a pitcher seven or eight years past his prime and misses a few here and there," he says. "When you're about to turn 72, people are going to be watching to see if you're slipping."

Of course, a 46-year-old candidate can slip as well. Obama told reporters in Jordan yesterday that "Israel is a strong friend of Israel's," obviously meaning to say the United States.

Still, Obama supporters are turning up the volume on what they see as a slanted approach.

"McCain has been a media darling forever, and now he's making the claim that he's not getting enough media coverage? It's comical," says Mitchell Bard, a writer and filmmaker who blogs at the Huffington Post.

"If Obama had said the things McCain has said, the media would be all over that as an example of his inexperience: 'He doesn't even know that Iraq and Pakistan don't share a border. He doesn't even know that Czechoslavakia hasn't been a country for 15 years.' When John McCain says it, it's 'Oh, that's just John McCain.' The media have decided that McCain is a knowledgeable foreign policy expert, and anything that doesn't fit into that paradigm is just ignored."

McCain's years in the Navy and frequent visits to such war zones as Iraq may well provide him with a degree of inoculation. Kevin Madden, the former spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said it is "much harder to make the argument that John McCain doesn't know what he's talking about" because of his long experience in foreign policy.

In Obama's case, Madden said, "every single misstep magnifies his inexperience. Whereas the challenge for John McCain is that every single misstep magnifies his age. The McCain campaign is cognizant of that. He often defuses it very quickly with humor."

McCain's age has become a staple of late-night comedy shows, and the candidate sometimes plays along. He said on "Saturday Night Live" that America needs a president "who is very, very, very old." And last week he pretended to doze off when Conan O'Brien raised the subject.

But a penchant for mangling the facts is not so easily laughed off -- at least if it becomes a theme of media coverage. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says a critique pushed by bloggers may resonate because of concerns about McCain's age.

"For that reason, the murmurs have become louder with each additional error," Sabato says. But, he adds, "if any of us had a camera on us 24 hours a day, the list of mistakes would be longer than our arms."

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