By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
PEMBROKE, N.H. -- John McCain is 71 years old, but the issue of his age comes up only occasionally at his town meetings. That is why a query this morning at Pembroke Academy was striking. A woman asked whether McCain had the stamina to serve as president for eight years.
McCain responded by leaving open the possibility that, if he is elected, he might not seek re-election.
"If I said I was running for eight years, I'm not sure that would be a vote getter," McCain said shortly before leaving New Hampshire for Iowa.
While no candidate wants to suggest he is looking past the upcoming election, McCain's response fell into a different category because it suggested that a focus on his age might hurt him politically. If McCain wins, he would be the oldest person ever inaugurated as president.
McCain at times likes to joke about his age, saying, "I am older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein." Today, he reminded voters about his vigorous 95-year-old mother, which he said "shows how good my genes are."
"My health is good, my campaign schedule is heavier than anybody else's, and Iíve said many times I can out-campaign anybody," McCain said. "I think the decision as to whether to run for re-election has to do with the circumstances at the time. I really do. You shouldn't run for eight years. Because then you think you've got eight years to get these things done."
Asked in a press conference to elaborate on his comment about not running for eight years, McCain said that every president evaluates his progress after two or three years and that he would be no different.
McCain's performance on the campaign trail leaves no doubt that he remains a vigorous candidate. He often starts campaigning early in the morning, spends hours on his bus talking with reporters, and attends several town meetings, where he stands on his feet for an hour at each appearance.
McCain's relentless campaigning has paid off in New Hampshire, at least if the polls are an indication. He has surged from back in the pack. A new CNN/WMUR poll shows McCain tied with long-time front-runner Mitt Romney at 29 percent, with Rudy Giuliani in third with 12 percent, a week before the Jan. 8 primary.
McCain plans to fly later today to Iowa, where a Des Moines Register poll published Tuesday shows him in third place, behind Mike Huckabee and Romney. After the Iowa caucuses on Thursday, he plans to return to New Hampshire on Friday. Asked yesterday whether he has to win New Hampshire, McCain said that he needs to win the expectations game. He said that a second-place win could be perceived as a win if the media focuses on his comeback from last summer, when his campaign was declared dead by some analysts.