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McCain and the "Mole-Like" Skin

The news that John McCain had a small section of "mole like skin" removed from his right temple during a procedure this morning was quickly featured on blogs and cable television.

Should it have been? And does it matter to the larger campaign?

Let's tackle the questions one by one.

In a vacuum, the fact that McCain had a bit of skin removed from his face shouldn't register as more than a blip on the radar screens of even the most vigilant of political junkies.

But, as anyone who reads the Fix regularly knows, politics -- especially at the presidential level -- doesn't happen in a vacuum. Past events and ongoing story lines matter.

And, that's where McCain's procedure this morning is newsworthy. McCain's age and health have been ongoing issues -- thank you Matt Drudge -- during this campaign; he has had multiple bouts with skin cancer in the past and bears a large scar on his face from a procedure several years ago to remove a cancerous growth. The release of his medical records (and is there a better named blog on earth than "Paging Dr. Gupta"?) were a major story for days during the campaign.

When a candidate is seeking to be the oldest American -- at 72 -- elected to a first term as president, health concerns are a legitimate issue to explore as voters should be allowed as much information about their potential president as possible.

And, all of that gets us to the second question -- whether the "mole like" skin has any long term ramifications on the campaign.

The answer is a definite maybe.

There's no getting around the fact that McCain's age is a major issue for voters in this election. Asked by the Associated Press/Yahoo to name the first thing that came to mind when McCain's name was mentioned, nearly one in five said "old" -- by far the most common response. (For Barack Obama, the most common words were "outsider/change".)

McCain himself has acknowledged on the campaign trail that he must demonstrate to voters that he is up to serving as president and that his vice presidential choice takes on more gravity given his advanced age.

In that context, stories about moles and biopsies are -- at best -- not helpful and -- at worst -- decidedly harmful to McCain's chances.

The more voters are reminded about his age, and the more doubts about his health are raised over the course of the next four months, the more pause voters will likely have about voting him into office.

Factor in the vigorous profile Obama is cutting -- working out for 188 minutes, shooting hoops wherever he goes -- and the contrast is even more striking.

Presidential politics is at least as much about the perceptions that voters have about the candidates as the reality of the two men. (Most people are introduced to and get to know the candidates via TV and, therefore, are getting a pre-packaged and caricatured -- for good or bad -- version of each.)

Take Ronald Reagan. Although he was well into his twilight years when elected president -- and was even further along during his second term -- the Gipper always gave off an aura of intensity and energy that belied his age. Voters rarely thought of Reagan as old; they regarded him as wise -- a veteran hand on the tiller of the ship of state.

It's that same "old vs. wise" dynamic that McCain faces in this election. He and his campaign will make the case that his age conveys experience and a readiness to take on the toughest job in the world. His opponents will paint him as someone out of touch with the average American -- using his age as a subtle undercurrent to make that case.

Events like today's "mole-like" skin removal make McCain's job of convincing voters he is up to the job all the more difficult. If this is an isolated incident that winds up as a 24-hour (or less) news story, then it isn't likely to do McCain any long-term damage. If, however, the story extends for several more days -- and, in doing so, seeps into the consciousness of the average voter who is only paying passing attention to the presidential race these days -- then it's MUCH more problematic to his campaign.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 28, 2008; 4:07 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: The Case for Rob Portman

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