KOKOMO, IND. — When Sen. Barack Obama laced up his basketball shoes Friday evening for a three-on-three game with some players half his age, he was doing something that could prove important should he become the Democratic nominee: looking young and healthy.
In a rare move by his presidential campaign, network news cameras were allowed to record Obama, 46, moving up and down the court, playing a game that is almost a religion in this state.
Though his relative lack of Washington experience has been repeatedly used against him, Obama's youth and athleticism could offer a dramatic general election contrast with Sen. John McCain, 71, the likely Republican nominee.
But in a Tribune interview Friday, Obama said he had no plans to use McCain's age against him should he win the nomination. He also discounted suggestions that the Arizona Republican is too old to be president.
"I don't think that's going to be the issue that people vote on," the Illinois Democrat said. "People respect John McCain. They know he's a tough guy. He's gone through things that I think most of us can only imagine."
McCain, a Vietnam veteran and onetime prisoner of war who has jokingly described himself as "older than dirt" and having "more scars than Frankenstein," would be 72 by the time of the November election and the oldest man ever elected to a first term as president, should he win. Ronald Reagan was first elected at 69.
Still, McCain keeps a rigorous campaign schedule and sometimes travels with his mother, who is in her 90s.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also campaigning in Indiana, criticized Obama for supporting "the best bill energy companies could buy" and challenged his advertising claims that he does not take money from oil companies. (He has taken donations from employees of such companies.)
"When it came time to stand up against the oil companies, to stand against Dick Cheney's energy bill, my opponent voted for it and I voted against it," the New York senator said in Bloomington, Ind.
Earlier in the day, Clinton campaigned in Jacksonville, N.C., calling on Obama to agree to a debate in that state, where polls show her behind.
"The only question I can't answer is why Sen. Obama won't debate me in North Carolina," Clinton said. "Again, I offer that I'll go anywhere, any time, and we'll have that debate as long as Sen. Obama would agree to actually meet me."
In the Tribune interview, Obama said the main reason pictures of him playing hoops or working out were rare was because he wanted to be left alone, at least sometimes.
During a recent morning workout in Erie, Pa., he was alone with his personal assistant in a hotel workout room. Listening to his iPod and scanning a morning paper, he switched between a treadmill and an exercise bike.
"That's sort of my quiet time," he said. "If you start having a bunch of reporters there, then it's not quiet time."
Obama's top strategist has also said that there may have initially been some reluctance to show the candidate playing a sport heavily associated with African Americans.
Should he become the nominee, Obama acknowledged there would probably be a few images of him working out.
"You guys may get some shots, but it's not going to be because we think that's going to give us an advantage," he said.
On every major primary day, with the exception of New Hampshire, where he was surprised with a loss, Obama has played basketball. It's a game he has played since childhood.