U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is fuming. Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts as a 21-year-old Army sergeant in Vietnam, is convinced that GOP opponents of his presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, are deliberately spreading the slanderous notion that McCain--because of his 5 1/2 years as a POW in Hanoi--is temperamentally and emotionally unsuited to be president.

In an interview in his office, Hagel was characteristically blunt: "John McCain is making real and measurable progress. I know that makes some people nervous. Some powerful individuals do not want John McCain to be elected president. . . . I will not stand by while a guy like McCain, a hero who has contributed so much, is subjected to the lowest, most reprehensible sewer politics and whispering campaign I have ever seen."

It's true that the McCain campaign, particularly with a strong recent surge in New Hampshire, makes many in the Republican and Washington establishment uneasy. McCain has long proved his commitment to killing the six- and seven-figure infusions of soft money to which both parties (Democrats, from trial lawyers and unions; Republicans, from tobacco companies and insurance interests) are hopelessly addicted.

Nobody who has watched the Arizona conservative doubts that, as president, McCain would end the cozy Capitol Hill arrangement through which influential congressmen secure the spending in their state of public funds on projects the U.S. government has never endorsed.

As McCain responded when questioned in the first New Hampshire debate about his temper, "My friends, I get angry when we spend $350 million on a carrier the Navy doesn't want or need." That unwanted but not unfunded carrier is a pet home-state project of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Lott has never been an admirer of McCain. And on the Nov. 7 "Fox News Sunday" when asked if he had ever seen McCain "blow a gasket," the compulsively precise Lott ducked and then expanded the discussion: "I do think that your temperament makes a difference."

From questions about temper to answers about temperament followed by volunteer doubts about self-control--this kind of talk makes Chuck Hagel angry. "Implying that this man, who spent five-and-a-half years in a prisoner of war camp and then questioning, 'Is the guy stable?' is the lowest, most despicable kind of politics. It enrages me."

Dick Morris, who has been the principal political adviser to Trent Lott, does not disagree with Hagel's analysis. "I think he [McCain] is going to beat Bush in New Hampshire and . . . that's why this is coming out."

By seeking to turn the Arizonan's most admired strengths--his reputation for straight talk and his record of personal heroism--against him, McCain's opponents run a big political risk. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a wounded and highly decorated Navy veteran of Vietnam combat, who called McCain this past week to offer moral support, had withering criticism for Republicans spreading doubts about the candidate's stability. "They dishonor the foundations of all they have ever claimed allegiance--love of country, love of flag. . . . It is tawdry, cheap and cowardly."

It is that. Somehow in the power scheme of Washington, it is expected and acceptable for a senator to vent his fury upon an inferior, a twenty-something staff assistant or a powerless elevator operator. But what is apparently not okay is for a senator to express his anger or disappointment to an equal, another senator or a governor. That raises questions about "stability."

On McCain's staff are 13 individuals who have been with him for 10 years or more. That is extraordinary longevity in revolving-door Capitol Hill.

Yes, John McCain does have a temper, and he is not a candidate for canonization. But make no mistake: Because he passionately means what he says about eliminating big money from politics, McCain has made powerful enemies who will go to not-so-great lengths to beat him. Welcome to the NFL.