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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)

Like McCain, his close friend and potential 2008 GOP rival, Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, but his assessment of the Iraq conflict is radically different. McCain has asserted that despite serious mistakes by the Bush administration, victory remains possible. Hagel believes that U.S. troops are being thrown into a civil war that cannot be won and calls the conflict "the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam."

Earlier in their careers, McCain, 70, and Hagel, 60, were viewed as rising Republican stars, two plain-spoken outsiders with gritty military résumés. After losing to Bush in the 2000 GOP nomination battle, McCain greatly enhanced his stature inside the party by embracing Bush's Iraq policy. Meanwhile, Hagel, an early and persistent critic of the invasion, grew more estranged.

"He's held his view for a long time and I've held mine for a long time, so it's not as if we suddenly find ourselves on the opposite side of the issue," McCain said of Hagel. "I respect his views. I maintain my strong affection and respect for him."

Hagel warned against military action long before the Iraq invasion, but despite his trepidations, he supported a Senate resolution authorizing the war. He has since renounced his vote and has been trying to atone for it ever since. When Bush announced a plan earlier this month to deploy additional troops, Hagel co-sponsored, with two prominent Democrats, a new Senate resolution opposing the plan. Though nonbinding, the measure has triggered the first significant confrontation between the White House and Congress over Iraq since the war began.

Hagel vainly implored his Republican colleagues to join him in supporting the resolution, which was approved 12 to 9 during a session of the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes," he said. "This is a tough business."

One of Hagel's sparring partners is Lieberman, who has infuriated Democrats with his outspoken war advocacy. Two weeks ago, the Nebraska senator was introduced to the Internet video site YouTube when his son, an eighth-grader, showed him a clip from "Meet the Press" that was drawing heavy traffic. It was a showdown between Hagel and Lieberman over Iraq.

If critics of Bush's troop increase have their way, Lieberman asserted, the consequences "for my children and grandchildren, I fear, will be disastrous."

"That's ridiculous," Hagel shot back, "and I am offended that any responsible member of Congress or anyone else would even suggest such a thing. Senator Lieberman talks about his children and grandchildren. We all have children and grandchildren; he doesn't have a market on that."

Hagel is a loner in the Senate, a serious and somewhat distant colleague who eschews consultants and other trappings of political ambition -- although he is a regular on political talk shows. He travels the country extensively and particularly enjoys talking to students. Last month, he spoke at Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and he is to receive an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary next month. Ambassadors and foreign officials visit his office regularly.

He often speaks of the current period as a "transformational time" that could bring a political earthquake, as early as the 2008 election. He sees parallels to 1960 and 1980, which resulted in the pivotal presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

"Politics and politicians must become relevant to the times . . . or they become irrelevant," Hagel said. "And when you become irrelevant, something is going to fill that void."

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