THE VILLAGES, Fla. - On the final weekend before the Florida Republican primary, John McCain went after a key element of his political base: people his age and older.

The 71-year-old senator from Arizona visited this upscale central Florida retirement community yesterday. He had spoken at another one, Sun City Center, the day before. In both cases, the crowds were large, the reception warm.

"I have no problem with his age; I got smarter as I got older," said Richard Hunsicker, 81, a retired computer executive who says he plans to vote for McCain tomorrow. "You get to know a lot more if you keep going. That's one reason I can't see this Barack Obama. He's so green."

McCain would be the oldest incoming president in American history. By Inauguration Day, he would be two years and five months older than Ronald Reagan was on taking office in 1981. Before the end of a second term, he would turn 80.

So far, that does not seem to have hurt McCain, certainly not among the elderly, who seem to place special value on his experience. In the three primaries to date, exit polls show he has done better among seniors than among any other age group, getting more than 40 percent of their votes.

He'll need their support again this week in Florida if he is to win a tough fight with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and become the Republicans' unquestioned front-runner.

A lot of older Floridians have given serious thought to what it would mean to have a president who is one of their own.

"I'm a little bit worried about his age; it is such a tough job," said Eveline Kyle, 77, of Sun City Center. "It wouldn't stop me from voting for him. But I hope he picks a good running mate."

The age issue was raised memorably a week ago by actor Chuck Norris, 67, a supporter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 52. Norris said he had not backed McCain because he was afraid the senator would not survive four years in the Oval Office.

McCain said he intended to send his mother, Roberta, healthy and independent at 95, over to wash out Norris' mouth with soap.

Romney, 60, made an oblique reference to age on CNN yesterday: "Sen. McCain can talk about the past better than anyone I know."

And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in an editorial endorsing McCain, expressed concern about his health and noted his two bouts with melanoma, a serious skin cancer.

McCain, who campaigns at least as hard as his rivals, has things on his mind in his closing Florida push other than trying to show people that he's young and vigorous enough to serve.

He is trying to show he is conservative enough to command the loyalty of the GOP rank-and-file. To impugn his credentials, the Romney campaign has pointed to reports of his friendship with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and yesterday labeled him the candidate of the New York Times, which endorsed him Friday. In conservative circles, that's an insult.

He is trying to show he is savvy enough to run the economy. As recession fears mount, he has been haunted by remarks he made on several occasions that he does not know as much about economics as he should.

And he is trying to redirect the campaign conversation back to national security, his true passion. The country's current economic problems will be solved in time, he said yesterday on

Meet the Press

, but the threat posed by radical Islamic extremism is and will be "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century."

In addition, McCain hopes endorsements he has received the last few days from such top Florida Republicans as Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez will push him over the top.

"It's a very close race, and a tough one" said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a McCain ally. "Why? The field is starting to thin out. This is a closed primary, with no independents, which doesn't help. Romney's spending more money than we are. It's very difficult."

It is difficult to determine whether age is a drag on McCain's chances. But voters often cite it as a reason for not supporting him.

"Wonderful man, a little old," was the verdict from Don Vercauteren, 65, a real estate agent from Sarasota who is leaning toward Romney. "I know I don't have the strength I had when I was 50 or 60. To work 18 hours a day, nine days a week, the way a president has to, it takes a toll."

Mostly, though, older voters look at McCain and see someone with a wealth of life experience.

"I like Romney, but I think he needs a little maturity - that's just a grandma talking," said Margaret Foster, 71, at Sun City Center. "It's quite a world out there, and it's going to take a lot of acquired wisdom to get us through the next few years."

Yesterday at the Villages, when McCain was done speaking and opened the floor for questions and comments, Maryanne Lane, 65, got the microphone first.

"For everyone who thinks you're too old," she said, "I'm here to say that you look great, you sound great, and I'm sure you'll last eight years."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.