MERRIMACK, N.H. – On overseas congressional trips, Sen. John McCain is known as a punishing taskmaster, often flying through the night to visit as many as 12 countries in 10 days.

“We call it the death march. All those who travel with him march or die,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent companion. “He must think as a rule you can’t have lunch and dinner in the same country.”

Despite such tales of his high energy level, as McCain’s star rises in the race for the Republican nomination, some voters have taken note that if elected, the Arizona senator, 71, would be the oldest person ever to become president in the history of the nation.

He would be 72 at his inauguration and 80 years old after two terms in an office that has aged much younger men. Former President Bill Clinton was a youthful 46 when he first took office; eight years later, he left with a head full of gray-white hair and a face lined from worry.

“It’s an awful thing to say, but I am a little concerned,” said Al Davenport, 66, an independent who voted for McCain in 2000 and came to listen to his recent pitch at the Merrimack post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

McCain often deflects questions about his age by joking with crowds that he’s “older than dirt” or that he’s leaving “the old soldiers’ home for one last cavalry charge.” And he loves to tell the story of his sharp-as-a-tack, 95-year-old mother who went to Paris for a vacation and found out she was too old to rent a car. “So she bought one instead,” he deadpans.

His doctors say he is in good health; his friends, family, staff and colleagues say they have trouble keeping up with him; and McCain himself says he has never felt better as he maintains a grueling campaign schedule of non-stop talk with voters and the press.

“I feed on this,” McCain said in an interview following overflow town hall meetings in Dover and Merrimack halfway through a typical day. “When I walk in and see a crowd like these first two, it just invigorates me, it really does. By popular demand, I’m cutting back on some of the corny jokes – not all, not all.”

Cindy McCain was 24 when she met her future husband, who was 17 years older. But she said she was attracted to his energy and exuberance.

According to a summary of his medical reports provided by his campaign, McCain’s cardiopulmonary health is excellent and he takes Vytorin to lower his cholesterol, as well as baby aspirin and a multi-vitamin.

He has been free of skin cancer for seven years.

If there is one thing that makes him seem his age, it’s a slight hearing loss in his left ear, a remnant of his Navy pilot days. Occasionally, at debates, McCain can be seen leaning forward, brow wrinkled, asking the moderator to repeat the question.

McCain, however, turns even this into a sign of virility, not age. “It was a macho thing, even if you had a cold, you would fly,” he explained.

“A couple of times I got ear blocks that were pretty severe. The pain from having ear blocks, I think, caused a little hearing loss in this ear.”

McCain acknowledges that he isn’t very good at relaxing, and his wife says the best way to relax is to leave the country and take away his cell phone and Blackberry.

“I just think I would challenge anybody to try to keep up with him,” Cindy McCain said. “You see these young staffers who are asleep in their chairs at the end of the day and he’s looking for something else to do.”

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John McCain

AP-NY-01-04-08 1930EST

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