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In a Changing Corner of Pa., a Glimpse of Obama's Age Problem
He worries about McCain's ability as a candidate but has deep respect for what he endured in Vietnam. Rutherford received draft deferments while enrolled as an electrician's apprentice, and that has bothered him ever since. "It was not the greatest decision in my life," he said. "An awful lot of my friends didn't come back or didn't come back in the best mental condition. . . . I felt that I'd let them down."
While he has spent his whole life in Lancaster, he says he is more worldly than many of his contemporaries there. He and his girlfriend are thinking about investing in real estate in Baltimore, and he prided himself on putting the lodge's newsletter online, despite complaints from older members. Nonetheless, he has trouble fathoming as president someone who, as he sees it, is not qualified. "It's kind of a tried-and-true American versus an unknown," he said.
The presidential race has featured generational contrasts before, most recently when Clinton, a baby boomer, took on World War II veterans in Bush and Dole. But Clinton fared well with older voters because of the strong support for programs such as Social Security among the seniors who predominated in the 1990s, many of whom grew up during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In 2000, Gore narrowly won voters over 65 after echoing Clinton's arguments about Social Security. In 2004, John F. Kerry lost voters over 65 by five percentage points to President Bush, and he lacked the huge edge that Obama holds in polls with younger voters to make up the difference.
Edward F. Coyle, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance of Retired Americans, said Obama holds the traditional Democratic edge on issues such as pensions, but is lagging with seniors because his campaign became so identified with younger voters during the primaries, as older ones gravitated toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"There was never a lot of discussion about the issues we work on, and he wasn't working with older communities to get out their vote," Coyle said. "He's pretty much unknown on these issues as a result, and has a lot of work to do."
Demographers have for decades noted a conservative bent in McCain's age cohort, roughly those born between 1930 and 1945, who came of age in the relatively serene Eisenhower years. Even as their views have changed over time, members of this generation have remained notably more conservative than those who followed.
A Pew survey last year found that the proportion of those born before 1946 who approve of interracial dating had increased from 36 percent to 65 percent since 1987, but that that rate remained well below that for the generations that followed. Across a range of other social issues, such as women's rights and gay rights, the views of all post-1946 generations clustered together, while pre-baby boomers stood apart as more conservative.
And this year, older voters find themselves presented with a choice that illuminates societal shifts.
McCain hails from an America that exalted service to country, and he is the scion of a military family who endured five years in enemy captivity and who preaches a mantra of personal honor and of the nation over the individual -- "Country First," as his campaign slogan declares. His wife is conspicuously reserved at his side; he does not communicate by e-mail and only recently learned to use the Internet; even his roguish sense of humor carries echoes of the more chauvinistic 1950s of his youth.
Obama's embodiment of a newer America begins but hardly ends with the fact that he would be the first black president. In a country where people liked to know where you were from, Obama lacks a ready answer -- he is part Hawaii, part Kansas, part Chicago. In a recent speech in Berlin, he declared himself a "citizen of the world."
He came of age after the draft and was shaped by the modern meritocracies of premier universities. While McCain has served 26 years in Congress and has run for president before, Obama contends with the perception that he has shot to the top without putting in his time. He and his wife exemplify the contemporary marriage of professional equals. His campaign thrives on the Internet and is very much about his appeal as an individual, with iconic posters and YouTube compilations. If he shares anything with the America of yore, it is that he likes to smoke cigarettes.
Faced with this divide, older voters have made their preference for McCain clear -- even though they are more likely than younger ones to express concern about his age, possibly because they are aware of the challenges they face as they grow older. In April, a Pew survey found that more than 70 percent of voters under 50 and 67 percent between 50 and 64 found Obama inspiring, but that only 53 percent over age 65 did.