CONCORD, N.H. - An unflinching John McCain returned to New Hampshire on Tuesday only to be told by high school students he might be too old to be president and too conservative to be respected.
McCain, the Arizona senator whose presidential bid has stumbled through the summer, countered the Concord High School students with humor.
"Thanks for the question, you little jerk," McCain joked back to one student who asked the 71-year-old about his age. "You're drafted."
McCain's two-day trip to New Hampshire launches his fall campaign in the key early voting state. During a morning visit with students, he explained why he was not shrinking from his support for a temporary increase of troops in Iraq and why students should pay attention.
"If this war continues much longer, there will be people in this audience who will serve in the military, who also may be going over there (in Iraq) or to Afghanistan," McCain told the high school students.
He said the students should watch the upcoming report from Gen. Peter Petraeus.
"It may be a seminal debate. It may be the most important debates in history and it may directly effect your lives," he warned. "He's going to say: Whether it was or was not in the beginning, if we lose Iraq, it will be part of this struggle against radical, Islamic extremism because Al Qaeda will take over and the area will deteriorate into chaos and destruction."
But during a town hall-style meeting, students were more interested in pushing McCain on the environment, his support for gay rights and even his age.
"If elected, you'd be older than Ronald Reagan, making you the oldest president. Do you ever worry you might die in office or get Alzheimer's or some other disease that might affect your judgment?" one student asked.
The audience groaned; McCain slid into a joke.
"I think it was one of my sons that alleged I'm getting to the point I hide my own Easter eggs," McCain said to laughter. "When you saw my 95-year-old mother (on a video introduction), you saw the kind of genes I have."
He said he's a hard campaigner and his age won't be an issue.
Another student pushed him on gay rights; McCain repeated his pledge to oppose discrimination but support for traditional marriage.
"I came here looking to see a good leader," 16-year-old William Sleaster told McCain to boos. "I don't."
Later on Monday, McCain planned to visit a business and have a town hall-style meeting.