John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone while his father served in the Navy.
Pat Sullivan / AP Enlarge
DALLAS - Republican candidate John McCain said yesterday he was sure he was constitutionally qualified to be president even though he was not born in a state.
"I have absolutely no concern about that," said Mr. McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936.
The U.S. Constitution says any president must be a "natural born citizen" of the United States. The McCain campaign has asked conservative lawyer Ted Olson to research whether he faces any legal barriers.
The Panama Canal Zone was under U.S. control when Mr. McCain was born there. His father was stationed in the zone while in the Navy. Mr. McCain said his staff researched the question when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
"It's very clear that an American born in a territory of the United States, whose father is serving in the military, would not be eligible for the presidency of the United States is certainly not something our founding fathers envisioned," said the Arizona senator, who is expected to win the Republican nomination for the November election.
Meanwhile, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a prominent backer of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama, introduced legislation that would define a "natural-born citizen" as anyone born to any U.S. citizen while in the active or reserve components of the U.S. armed forces. Mr. Obama's campaign announced late yesterday that he will co-sponsor the bill.
"Those who serve and sacrifice for their country, like John McCain and his father, deserve every honor and privilege that our nation can possibly provide, and that includes the ability to run for the highest office in the land," Mr. Obama said in a statement.
Another Arizona senator who ran for president encountered the same question. Republican Barry Goldwater, the party's 1964 nominee, was born in Arizona in 1909, three years before it became a state. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
The constitutional birth requirement prevents some prominent politicians from seeking the presidency, including California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born a citizen of Austria, and Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was born a citizen of Canada.
Mr. Olson said the plain meaning of "natural-born citizen" includes those born to parents who are citizens, particularly when they are born on a U.S. military base as Mr. McCain was.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, people are born U.S. citizens if they are born in the United States or their parents are U.S. citizens. Article II of the Constitution limits the office of president to a "natural-born citizen," a term on which the founding fathers did not elaborate when they wrote the document in 1787.
To date, no American to take the presidential oath has had an official birthplace outside the states.
"There are powerful arguments that Sen. McCain or anyone else in this position is constitutionally qualified, but there is certainly no precedent," said Sarah Duggin, an associate law professor at Catholic University. "It is not a slam-dunk situation."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and one of Mr. McCain's closest allies, said it would be incomprehensible to him if the son of a military member born in a military station could not run for president. "He was posted there on orders from the United States government," Mr. Graham said.
The phrase "natural born" was included in early drafts of the Constitution. Scholars say notes of the Constitutional Convention give away little of the intent of the framers.
Multiple experts and scholarly reviews say the issue has never been definitively resolved by either Congress or the Supreme Court.