When Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg runs for office, the issue of ageism often seems to be part of the campaign conversation.

It started more than a quarter-century ago with his own subtle shots at his first opponent - a 72-year-old - as flaky, eccentric, and a national monument.

He battled the "he's too old" charge himself in 2002, when his GOP opponent questioned his fitness for office after Lautenberg, who was 78 at the time, gave a rambling answer to a debate question. Lautenberg shot back that he was a better skier than his younger opponent, and his friends explained that Lautenberg had always been a rambling speaker.

But now, Lautenberg is 84 and would be 90 at the end of the term he seeks. Opinion polls taken by Rutgers University and Quinnipiac University in the summer showed that a majority of New Jersey voters thought he was too old to run again. A third academic poll, by Monmouth University last month, showed that 51 percent of respondents did not think he was too old, but that 58 percent felt he'd been around too long.

The age issue this year is being pushed - delicately - by the opposition in a state where 1.1 million residents are older than 65.

GOP primary candidate Anne Evans Estabrook, 63, made subtle work of Lautenberg's age from day one of her campaign, saying in her announcement speech: "People like our own Sen. Frank Lautenberg have had their chance. Sen. Lautenberg was first elected 25 years ago."

And if anyone missed the point that Lautenberg had been around for a very long time, she went on: "That is the same year the Dow Jones average had reached nearly 1100, and Time Magazine's Man of the Year was awarded to a machine - a promising new invention called the personal computer."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a Web ad that teased the age issue the day after Lautenberg's 84th birthday in January. The ad plays a clip of a 1982 Lautenberg television ad in which he said New Jersey was 45th in the nation when it came to getting a return on the federal tax dollars it sent to Washington, and he promised to improve the situation. The ad rubs in the age factor by saying "26 years after his promise, New Jersey isn't 45th anymore. It's dead last."

Estabrook's political consultant, Larry Weitzner, said: "Why should he [Lautenberg] be given six more years? He's had more than two decades, and there is a desire for change."

Even Lautenberg's allies stand ready to replace him. U.S. Reps Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone, two New Jersey Democrats who have made no secret of wanting a U.S. Senate seat, have the highest amounts of campaign cash on hand in the nation - just in case.

Lautenberg, though, isn't about to step aside, and his chances for reelection are good, according to analysts, academic polls, and Congressional Quarterly and the Cook Political Report, which rate risks in federal races.

New Jersey is among the bluest of the blue states. It hasn't sent a Republican U.S. senator to Washington since 1972, handed the popular vote to a GOP presidential candidate since 1988, or elected a Republican governor since 1997.

Age did not prove to be a factor in the races of 16 U.S. senators who have been reelected after age 80, including U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.), who was reelected at age 88 in 2006 and is the nation's oldest senator.

Lautenberg is taking on the age issue by changing the conversation to one about effectiveness. His campaign slogan is "Standing Strong. Making a Real Difference."

His campaign tells the story of the self-made millionaire who has stood tough against against big tobacco, liquor, the gun lobby, polluters, and other special interests - as well as President Bush - on behalf of the little guy. In the last year alone, he has won battles to protect chemical plants and brought home money for Amtrak, hospitals and mental-health clinics, has stopped plans to drill for oil off the Jersey coast, and has been trying to get free crop insurance for farmers, which could save an estimated $16 billion over five years.

He serves on four major committees, including Appropriations and Environment, and chairs two subcommittees dealing with transportation and safety. He skis, golfs and plays tennis.

"New Jersey values effectiveness, not age, and voters consistently back Sen. Lautenberg because they know he is an effective voice for them in Washington," campaign manager Brendan Gill said in a statement. "But the Republican U.S. Senate candidates, who stand behind [President] Bush on every major issue, will say anything they can to avoid talking about how we are going to bring our troops home, improve health care, tackle global warming and boost education. Sen. Lautenberg is working for New Jersey to tackle those problems now."

Lautenberg should be familiar with the age argument. He carefully used it in his 1982 race against Republican Millicent Fenwick, who was 72. When pressed on the issue at the time, Lautenberg said he did not question Fenwick's "fitness" but rather, "I'm questioning her ability to do the job."

He was 58 and running for his first elected office against the better-known Fenwick, a pipe-smoking congresswoman and former Vogue model who was the template for the

Doonesbury

character Lacey Davenport.

Lautenberg never crassly said Fenwick was "too old," but, former Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean recalled, "it was obvious. They insinuated it a lot. There were ads that made her look older than she was. They made the point."

Clay Richards, assistant director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac University that asked the Lautenberg age question over the summer, said he has another poll coming out soon in which he asks the question again.

"Then and now, it's not something I think is a deal-breaker, unless there is a serious illness that shows the age of the politician," said Richards, who covered the 1982 campaign as a reporter for UPI.

Gerontologist Robert Butler, first director of the National Institute on Aging and who is credited with coining the term

ageism,

said: "We've grown a lot as a nation on racism and sexism. I'm not sure we've done as well with ageism."

He said it had popped up in the presidential race as well, as some questioned whether 71-year-old U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) is too old to be president.

Because of the McCain dynamic, Republicans have a sticky problem in using age against against Lautenberg.

"A Republican going after Lautenberg's age also paints their likely presidential nominee with the same brush," said Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray. And the GOP Senate candidate would "need the Republican presidential nominee to do well to help down ballot, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.