SARASOTA, Fla. -- Like Bob Dole, 72-year-old Thomas J. Asaif saw infantry duty in World War II and calls himself a conservative.
The retired electronics engineer would love to vote for a veteran for president but says there's no way he'll support Dole.
"Hey, he's as old as I am. What right does he have running the country?" asked Asaif, who is leaning to Ross Perot.
This year, more voters than ever are retirees -- nearly one-quarter of the electorate, by some estimates.
Seniors should be a perfect match for Dole, who says he wants to lead the country back to the values of an older, more tranquil time.
It isn't working out that way for the Republican, however.
Instead, the elderly are some of his sharpest critics. Among voters age 65 and up, Dole trails President Clinton by 19 percentage points, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Months of Democratic pounding over the Medicare issue have put the former senator on the defensive among the elderly.
But interviews with dozens of seniors highlight another reason Dole is having trouble winning over members of his own age bracket: Many think he's too old to be president.
"I think when you get to be that age, you shouldn't be running the country," said Donald G. Wakefield, 71, of South Venice, Fla., a retired construction superintendent from Pittsburgh.
"He's out of touch. He doesn't have his thumb on the pulse of the country," remarked Bill Say, 67, who was a production supervisor at Armco Steel in Butler, Pa.
"I still like the younger man, even though he has moral problems.
"You know, 70 percent of Americans have moral problems."
At 73, Dole would be the oldest person ever to become president, though Ronald Reagan was a few months older when he won re-election in 1984.
That year, Reagan's support fell noticeably among elderly voters, who had been among his strongest supporters when he was first elected.
Perhaps more to the point for today's elderly, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the nation's oldest president when they were middle-aged, was more than a decade younger than Dole is now when he was first elected in 1952.
At the time he left office, after serving two full terms, Ike had just turned 70.
Today, of course, Americans live longer than they did a generation ago. But that doesn't mean they remain on the job into their 70s, as Dole has.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19 out of 20 people over age 65 don't work full time.
Each year, thousands of them migrate here, to the retirement havens of Florida's Gulf Coast, where a profusion of golf courses, sailing marinas and tennis courts testifies to their active lifestyles.
"I think I have as good a health as anybody," says Norbert "Nobby" King, who retired in 1980 after 33 years at an Indiana electric power company.
Tall and barrel-chested, with a thick sweep of silvery hair, the former Chicago resident still plucks the bass fiddle with a band four nights a week.
"I'm 75 years old, and I'll be damned if I'd want to compete with the intelligence of the leaders of the world," said King, whose four-piece jazz combo, the Over the Hill Gang, provided the entertainment for some jitterbugging oldsters at the Senior Friendship Center in Sarasota the other day.
"You ask every person in this place if they'd want to take on that job," he said.
"It's not because Dole is not a sharp guy. It's not because the guy does not know politics."
It's because, according to King and others who have been there, a 70-something president may not be as mentally sharp as he once was.
"I think a younger man would be better," said Jerry O'Keefe, 78, of St. Petersburg.
"You know, when you get a little old, your mind starts to go. You forget. I do think age is a factor."
The age issue has shadowed Dole's candidacy from the start, and it is still one of the first things voters mention about him.
Last month, the Pew Research Center asked 606 Americans what single word best describes Bob Dole.
Far and away the most frequent answer, volunteered by nearly one-fifth of those questioned: "Old."
Dole aides say their research shows that older voters are more likely than younger voters to have concerns about his age.
Issue isn't fading away
Dole himself, in an interview last June with The Sun, predicted that age "will fade as an issue because I think people are going to see me around, see I'm very active, see I'm healthy."
It hasn't happened yet.
A national poll in August, by Princeton Survey Research, found that almost two of every five voters believe Dole is too old to serve effectively as president.
Taking the issue head-on in his acceptance speech in San
Diego, Dole contended that "age has its advantages."
He offered himself as "the bridge to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action. I have seen it. And I remember."
So does Edward C. Shinn, 82, of Sarasota, who said, "The country is going to hell because a lot of things have disappeared that we had long ago. I'd love to see it come back to the way it used to be."
But the retired New Hampshire businessman, who said he "liked Reagan so much I became a Republican," doesn't think the country can go back.
"I don't believe any of it," he said of Dole's talk of restoring old values, adding that he'll probably vote for Clinton.
Even Dole supporters bring up the matter of his age unprompted.
"It may be an issue, but I don't think anything of it myself. He's not going to get Alzheimer's," says Agnes Franson, 93.
Like many seniors -- who vote in higher proportions than any other age group -- the retired Wisconsin schoolteacher is watching the candidates closely.
"They keep saying something about his age," said Eva Jones, 82, fTC as she played shuffleboard one morning last week at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.
"It's just because they can't find anything to say about his character."
"I wouldn't vote against age. The ability is what counts," agreed Ralph Clark, 82, one of her playing partners.
"I thought I had all my faculties when I was 73."
A surge of elderly support for Clinton in recent weeks has enhanced the president's chances in states with large retiree populations, including Pennsylvania and Iowa.
It has also given him a shot at carrying states -- such as Florida and Arizona -- that no Democratic presidential candidate has won in 20 years or longer.
Millions of dollars worth of Democratic TV ads attacking Dole as an enemy of Medicare have hurt the Republican challenger, his aides acknowledge.
During a stop in St. Petersburg last week, Dole told supporters his campaign would mail out millions of copies of a letter sent to him in 1983 by then-Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida, a Democrat who died seven years ago, praising Dole's efforts to reform Social Security.
As he looked around the crowd, which included many retirees, Dole joked, "There's nobody here my age. You're all about 45."
"I'm 55," he added. Hardly anyone laughed.
Pub Date: 9/19/96