Age Likely to Be Key Factor in Presidential Campaign
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michelle Norris.
The primary phase of this presidential campaign focused largely on two factors - the gender and race of the candidates. As the general election begins, age could play an increasingly important role. Senator John McCain would be 72 when sworn in, Senator Barack Obama, 47, and that's the widest gap ever between Republican and Democratic nominees.
Voters tell pollsters age is not an issue, but polls find younger voters favor Obama while older voters tend to favor John McCain. We asked NPR's national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer, to talk to voters of all ages in Virginia, a place where this year's election could be very close.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Charlottesville is a beautiful town built around the University of Virginia with its graceful colonnaded buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. Like many university towns, Charlottesville has also become a magnet for retirees, offering rich cultural opportunities as well as a small-town feeling. We talked about the election at the town's senior center, which has lots of activities for so-called younger seniors, including classes in tai chi.
Mr. BRIAN McKENZIE (Tai Chi Instructor): Bring both fists in, nice and light, relax. Let your hands drop. Fly like a big bird.
WERTHEIMER: That was instructor Brian McKenzie. We gathered in a library lounge with some of the tai chi students and other seniors. Sheryl Kramer(ph) is a retired dental assistant. She is undecided, but feels she doesn't know Obama. He seems glib to her, while she does know McCain.
Ms. SHERYL KRAMER (Retired Dental Assistant): I like what I see. I think he's a good man. Of course, there's always the story of his involvement in the prison camp. He suffered dreadfully, we all know it. He knows what war is which I think is to his benefit because a lot of people declare war and have never been involved in a war. They have never seen people die.
WERTHEIMER: Mara Evans(ph), a retired medical technician, says she is deciding what to do after Hillary, and voting for McCain is a possibility.
Ms. MARA EVANS (Retired Medical Technician): I would have gone all the way for Hillary because she had the experience. She has done a lot in the past. She's worked hard. I would like to really see who they choose for the vice president. And that would have some bearing on my final decision.
WERTHEIMER: Hillary Clinton generally dominated among older voters in the primaries. A majority of voters over 65 might agree with Kramer or Evans. But some older voters are concerned about an older president. Paul Stit(ph) is retired, but still writing books and articles about vitamins, and he likes Obama's youth.
Mr. PAUL STIT (Writer): I think 46 is an ideal age. I started my own company at 38, and that's when you have the most vim and vigor and energy. I mean, the biggest mistake in the world would be to hire somebody like me as president at my age. I mean, that's a real big mistake. I mean, I'm just not up to the rigors of that kind of thing and I think I'm 10 times healthier that John McCain. He's got 1,400 pages of medical problems, you know, and I only have like three.
WERTHEIMER: Experience is a big factor from many older voters. But the Deanna Bowman(ph), who retired from State Farm Insurance, rejects that notion.
Ms. DEANNA BOWMAN (Retired Employee): I look at the Bush administration with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell. You don't have much more experience than that, and how much of a disaster they have been. I agree that as far as Obama's experience is concerned, it's truly still an unknown. But I'm ready to take the plunge with him.
WERTHEIMER: And that is something many younger voters are also doing. It's never hard to find young people in a college town. The Sorenson Center at UVA gathers college-age leaders from around the state for training.
Unidentified Man: I stand before you today to introduce Ms. Zia Chai(ph).
WERTHEIMER: The center's nonpartisan mission is to improve the quality of Virginia's political leadership. The summer session group we met has classes, field trips to Washington, and visiting lecturers.
Unidentified Man: Please join me in welcoming Ms. Zia Chai.
WERTHEIMER: These young people acknowledge the rock star excitement of Barack Obama, although some seemed embarrassed by it. Matthew Ridges(ph) is a student at William & Mary College and an Obama supporter.
Mr. MATTHEW RIDGES (Student): I have the opportunity to hear Barack Obama speak once and when he came down to the crowd after his speech the young woman next to me fainted.
Mr. RIDGES: Fainted. I've never heard anything like that before.
WERTHEIMER: However, Matt Ridges backs Obama for essentially the same reason as some of our seniors do.
Mr. RIDGES: My whole set of teenage years, from 12 to 20, was Bush administration. And I'm not impressed at all. And I think we need to try something different.
WERTHEIMER: Experience doesn't matter much to Joanna Eppenberger(ph), also from William & Mary. She told us her world changed after 9/11. She was in junior high. She strongly backed the president then. Now, she wants a new kind of leadership.
Ms. JOANNA EPPENBERGER (Student): Obama seems fresh and new and that might be a factor because of his age, and McCain just (unintelligible). There's that -someone said that he can't really lift his arms and so he just - to me, he always seems kind of closed off and (unintelligible), that might be because he's that old.
WERTHEIMER: So you look at McCain and you think old?
Ms. EPPENBERGER: Yes, I do.
WERTHEIMER: Adria Van Hoosier(ph) of UVA sees a different light. She says it was precisely 9/11 which pushed her toward John McCain.
Ms. ADRIA VAN HOOSIER (Student): I felt like McCain's Vietnam War experience will better prepare him to handle another 9/11 if we were ever to have that tragedy again rather than Obama, who's only been on the Senate Committee pertaining to warfare.
WERTHEIMER: Obama is not part of their generation. But these students see him as much closer than McCain is. Matt Ogren(ph), a Virginian, who attends Duke University, says Obama won't re-fight old political wars.
Mr. MATT OGREN (Student): I think that a lot of Obama's appeal is he's from a younger generation that hasn't been caught up in re-fighting the Vietnam War or re-fighting women's rights and civil rights over and over. And I think that's what he means by change is that it's time for a new generation, it's time for an older guard to step aside and for young people who don't see those battles as that important and really want just pragmatic, good government.
WERTHEIMER: We also talked to students who are taking Obama's nomination very personally - hoping and expecting that it will change their lives. Nathaniel Kurtz(ph) is from Virginia. He's a student at Morehouse, a traditionally black college in Atlanta.
Mr. NATHANIEL KURTZ (Student): I see an opportunity for me to move up in the ranks for a (unintelligible) that has only been dominated by older white men for a few numbers of times. And now I see that that is now going to be changed. And I can't sit idly by and see this chance go by for my opportunity to come along too, (unintelligible) my life.
WERTHEIMER: As a young black man, Kurtz presents two groups who have been a little less likely to turn out to vote. Democrats hope that will change this year and it will make the party competitive in states like Virginia, which last voted Democratic for president in 1964.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.