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Graded on age and attitude

Bob Dole celebrated his 73rd birthday Monday by eating breakfast at a senior citizen's center where some tablemates were younger than the candidate. If elected in November, Dole would be the oldest man to assume the presidency.

A recent poll says one-third of Americans believe Dole is too old to handle the rigors of the office. Age is a legitimate concern for voters, because a president preoccupied with health problems cannot bring his full energies to the job. Look at the sad spectacle of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose strange behavior _ apparently health-related _ has led to doubts about his ability to lead his country.

Dole has prepared an elaborate defense to the age issue, releasing detailed medical records and saying as president he would submit to an independent review of his physical and mental health. The former senator from Kansas should be commended for such openness. A septuagenarian who suffered a serious war wound in his 20s and a prostate cancer operation five years ago, Dole is remarkably healthy now. Having stopped smoking 30 years ago and switched to a low-fat diet, Dole is cocky enough to joke that he is more physically fit than President Clinton, who will turn 50 next month. Nothing in the records suggests Dole would be plagued with poor health over the next four years.

Age's effect on mental ability is not so easily measured. Many Americans believe Ronald Reagan's acuity declined during his second term. The former president, who was 69 when he entered the White House, announced five years after leaving office that he has Alzheimer's disease. Dole can point out that he ran the Senate as majority leader until last month, and while many questioned his politics, few doubted his ability.

Now that Dole has made his case that age should not be a disqualifier for the highest office, he can spend more time getting to know the generations of Americans who grew to adulthood during his 35 years in Washington. What's important isn't how many candles are ablaze on his birthday cake, but how he has spent those years. To many voters, Dole seems stuck in the '50s, looking and sounding ill-at-ease when he tries to dress casually or use colloquial English, favoring the music of Glenn Miller and Johnny Mathis, regretting that not every school has a spelling bee.

Understandably, Americans want a president who knows the challenges they face every day and who seems to have spent at least part of his life in their world.