Hagel Ponders White House Run As War Criticism Raises His Profile

To Sen. Chuck Hagel, Iraq is
To Sen. Chuck Hagel, Iraq is "the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam." (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

His Republican colleagues regard him warily. The White House barely speaks to him. He is reviled by his party's conservative base.

Looks as though Sen. Chuck Hagel is on a roll.

Both parties have their Iraq war contrarians. For the Democrats, it is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, whose steadfast support for President Bush nearly cost him his seat last year and forced him to run as an independent. The Republican version is Hagel, a career maverick from Nebraska and the only GOP senator to call for an end to the war.

Hagel's sharp criticism of the war has placed him squarely in the mainstream of public opinion on Iraq and revived long-dormant speculation about his presidential ambitions. Hagel has been eclipsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination who has vigorously endorsed the president's war policies.

But with McCain appearing increasingly isolated on the issue as public opinion has turned overwhelmingly against the war, Hagel is acting like a politician who believes his stock is climbing. In other words, he is considering a White House run.

Hagel said in a wide-ranging interview this week that he is discussing his options with his family and other confidants and will make a decision in the next six weeks.

He said one possibility is forming a presidential exploratory committee and -- despite his outcast position within his party -- seeking the Republican nomination. Or he may seek a third Senate term. Then again, he might take a more creative path.

Hagel joked during the interview about teaming up with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a moderate Republican, and also floated the possibility of joining a bipartisan unity ticket with a Democrat -- with his name first, of course.

Hagel clearly admires Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and calls him "a star," but he doubts the two could ever team up given the vast difference in their parties' principles. "I don't know if it gets to that point, but there is a shift going on out there, and there's nothing like a war that does that," Hagel said.

His GOP critics fume that Hagel and his Democratic allies who sponsor resolutions opposing a troop buildup are undermining Bush at a critical moment. "I really don't understand Senator Hagel," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.). "But playing around with resolutions when we all know we've got to stay and get the job done -- that doesn't make any sense. Most Republicans want us to win over there."

Hagel attracted the support of only 1 percent of registered Republicans in recent polls, compared with 25 to 30 percent for McCain. And his standing among conservative party faithful who will determine the outcome of the Republican presidential nomination remains strikingly low because of the intensity of his attacks on Bush. But Hagel has gained a particular following within the antiwar community. An Internet "draft Hagel" movement has formed, and even die-hard liberals admit they find him appealing.

"Chuck Hagel for president! If it ever narrows down to a choice between him and some Democratic hack who hasn't the guts to fundamentally challenge the president on Iraq, then the conservative Republican from Nebraska will have my vote," said an Internet article last week by Robert Scheer, co-author of the book "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

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