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    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    Citizen McCain's
    Panama Problem?

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Thursday, July 9, 1998

    Question: I would like to see Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a presidential candidate, but I heard that he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. The Constitution requires that a president be a "natural born" citizen of the United States. Is Sen. McCain barred from the presidency? – Steven R. Pruett, Falls Church, Va.

    Answer: John McCain has more pressing worries than eligibility on the road to the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. After his lead role in pushing campaign-finance and tobacco legislation, both anathema to the Senate GOP leadership, the Arizona senator may have to spend a lot of time trying to prove his party credentials before he ever gets to Iowa or New Hampshire.

    Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
    McCain (Reuters)
    But is he constitutionally qualified to become president? McCain was indeed born in the Canal Zone, and Article II of the Constitution plainly states that "no person except a natural born Citizen... shall be eligible to the Office of President."

    Some might define the term "natural-born citizen" as one who was born on United States soil. But the First Congress, on March 26, 1790, approved an act that declared, "The children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond sea, or outside the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens of the United States." That would seem to include McCain, whose parents were both citizens and whose father was a Navy officer stationed at the U.S. naval base in Panama at the time of John's birth in 1936.

    "He meets the requirement of U.S. citizenship in order to be eligible for president," said McCain spokesperson Nancy Ives. (For the record, McCain says the only thing on his plate is his bid for a third Senate term in November, though he is seen as a shoo-in.)

    Romney for President
    (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    The citizenship question has come up in past presidential campaigns. George Romney, the late Michigan governor and a leading aspirant for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. His support nose-dived following his September 1967 statement that he was "brainwashed" by the U.S. military during a visit to Vietnam.

    But during the period when he was still being touted as the only Republican who could defeat President Lyndon Johnson, Romney's opponents often raised the issue of his eligibility. William Loeb, the late publisher of the Manchester Union Leader who made his conservative views well known to New Hampshire primary voters, simply dismissed Romney as "Chihuahua George." But Romney was eligible. Romney’s grandfather emigrated to Mexico in 1886 with his three wives and children after Congress outlawed polygamy. Romney and his parents, who retained their U.S. citizenship, returned to the United States in 1912, the year Mexico erupted into revolution. The future governor didn't arrive in Michigan until 1939, when he was 32 years old. He didn't run for office until 1962.

    McCain, on the other hand, didn't get to Arizona until 1981, a year before winning election to Congress, when he was 44. In 1986, after two terms in the House, McCain won the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Barry Goldwater, the GOP's presidential nominee in 1964. Ironically, Goldwater was born in Phoenix in 1909 – three years before Arizona became a state. But no one questioned whether he was a "natural-born citizen."

    McCain for Senate
    (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    John McCain did not make many friends on his side of the aisle with his role in the tobacco debate, and some analysts say it may have damaged his chances for 2000. But McCain has been shot down before – first as a Navy flier over Vietnam in 1967, and later, in 1991, when he was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for showing "poor judgment" as one of the Keating Five. And he has survived each time.

    McCain has an adoring media on his side, and a reputation as someone who will make the difficult choices. What he shouldn't have is any question about his eligibility to be president.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, a former editor at NPR and the Hotline, writes the "Political Graffiti" column for The Hill, a Capitol Hill weekly. He is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1998 Ken Rudin

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