As hundreds of people gathered for a recent Elizabeth Warren rally in Rock Hill, S.C., the heat built so much that one woman in the crowd passed out before the event started.
The 90-degree day did not appear to slow Warren: She bounded up the steps to the stage and gave a kinetic, full-body wave to the crowd.
Without saying a word, the 70-year-old presidential candidate sent a message: Her physical stamina belies her age.
The age of the leading candidates has become the great, albeit often unspoken, issue of the Democratic presidential campaign. As they prepare for their next debate on Tuesday, Warren’s chief rivals and fellow septuagenarians, Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, are both facing questions about whether they are too old to run.
Sen. Warren (D-Mass.) is taking every opportunity to flaunt her fitness.
In the now-famous selfie-photo lines that are the capstone of her campaign rallies, Warren stays on her feet for hours greeting voters individually. Opening her rallies, she typically jogs to the podium. When she raced to the stage at the sweltering Rock Hill rally, she astonished a woman who was decades younger.
“I was just amazed that when you first came out here, Sen. Warren, that you ran up those steps the way that you did, and all this energy and stamina that you have,” said Nikita Jackson, a local city councilwoman who joined her on the stage.
Warren never mentions the contrast with her rivals. She doesn’t have to.
For Sanders (I-Vt.), Tuesday’s debate is expected to be his first extended public performance following his hospitalization for a heart attack, a major disruption of his campaign that reminded voters of the potential frailty of senior citizens in high office.
For Biden, whose debate performances have been uneven, the stage will turn a spotlight on how he is weathering the recent barrage of attacks by President Trump, 73.
Warren has largely escaped questioning about her age, but she will be standing next to the youngest of her rivals, 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who has campaigned on the need for generational change.
Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, age and health concerns will likely loom in the general election because Trump, too, is in his 70s. Though his physician in February declared him to be in “very good health,” Trump had gained enough weight to be considered obese.
In Tuesday’s Democratic debate, probably none of the candidates will make a direct, personal attack on a rival’s health or age for fear it would backfire. That’s what happened in the last debate when former Obama Cabinet official Julián Castro, 45, suggested that Biden’s memory was failing.
But the age issue will likely be part of the moderators’ questioning, and pressure may mount for candidates to make full health disclosures. Biden, Sanders and Warren all promised to do so after the last debate, but none has yet.
Sanders’ heart attack reminded voters and the campaigns of the higher medical risks of running for president while nearing age 80. Sanders, who had been maintaining a grueling campaign schedule of several events a day, was hospitalized after experiencing chest pains at a Nevada rally. His campaign canceled all his public events until further notice, postponed launching his first television ad, and was slow to provide details about what exactly happened that led to two stents being inserted.
Campaign aides have labored to quiet questions about whether Sanders would drop out of the race. But while recuperating at his home in Vermont, Sanders told reporters that he might be scaling back his campaign activities. That statement set off so many alarms that he backpedaled the next day.
On Thursday, Sanders released a seven-minute video statement to supporters thanking them for their well wishes and restating his commitment to the campaign.
Tuesday’s debate will be far more taxing — candidates will be on their feet and on camera for at least two hours, with few breaks. It will be a real-time stress test of a top-tier candidate whose departure from the race would upend the presidential contest.
Biden has faced questions about his mental agility because of his verbal stumbles in past debates. His supporters say that is in part a residue of a childhood stutter, and mostly a reflection of his lifelong speaking style, not a function of age. But voters are still scrutinizing him and Sanders closely.
“That heart attack is going to make people think twice,” said Alan Berger, a 73-year-old Warren supporter from Charleston, S.C. “Biden is showing his age and doesn’t seem as sharp as he used to be.”
Biden has made light of concerns about his age and stamina. “What the hell ‘concerns’ man?” he said to a reporter. “You wanna wrestle?”
But the age question has long been in the background of the 2020 primary. Early on, many activists seemed to be clamoring for generational change in their party’s leadership and the White House.
Polls have found that voters in the abstract would prefer a younger nominee. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in June found that only 11% of Democrats thought the ideal candidate would be 66 or older.
So far, Warren has faced few questions about her age. She may benefit from being a new face on the presidential campaign trail; Biden and Sanders have been in politics for decades and have run for president before.
“She seems a lot younger because she has all these brand new ideas,” said Bryce Smith, the 27-year-old Democratic Party chair in Dallas County, Iowa. Still, he said: “She is older than Hillary Clinton was, than Donald Trump was, than anyone was while running for president.”
For now, Warren’s energetic style of speaking — pacing the stage, flailing her arms, punching the air — helps to give many voters the impression she is younger than she is.
It sometimes seems a bit stagey, but associates say she is an energizer bunny in private too. Fueled by a high metabolism, she tends to snack and eat small meals throughout the day, yet remains rail thin. Even after a full day of campaigning she walks — in a hotel atrium or parking lot if need be.
Warren running — not for president, but literally running — has become an internet meme. Her supporters have posted videos of her running to the podium or stage at her rallies; running in a Pride parade; running through Penn Station in New York to catch a train.
Nothing spells stamina quite like her photo lines. At every rally she offers to take selfies — actually, they are phone photos taken by her staff — to everyone who wants one. Her one concession to comfort is that she typically dons sneakers before beginning the process. Even at the steamy rally in Rock Hill, hundreds lined up.
As Warren’s crowd sizes have grown into thousands, that poses a real test of commitment and stamina. She stood for more than four hours after a New York City rally, taking photos until almost midnight. Never has she cut short the line, and her campaign says she has no plans to end the practice, however big the rallies get. If she ever does, people might say she is, well, getting old.