Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) leaves a news conference in Omaha, Nebraska in this March 12, 2007, file photo. President Obama is expected to announce his nominees for secretaries of state and defense in the next two weeks. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Former senator Chuck Hagel, widely viewed as President Obama’s likely choice to lead the Pentagon and already under fire from some pro-Israel supporters, faced a new level of resistance Thursday from activists upset over his record on gay rights.

The sharpest criticism came from the Human Rights Campaign, a key White House ally and the country’s leading gay rights group, whose president pointed to a 1998 comment in which Hagel questioned whether an “openly aggressively gay” nominee could be an effective U.S. ambassador.

“Senator Hagel’s unacceptable comments about gay people, coupled with his consistent anti-
LGBT record in Congress, raise serious questions about where he stands on [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality today,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, a major fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign. “For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments.”

The rising concerns bubbled to the surface even after phone calls to gay rights activists in recent days from senior White House aides, including top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The aides told the activists that any Pentagon nominee would “live up to the principles” on gay rights established by Obama, according to several people familiar with the conversations.

Gay people proved to be among Obama’s most generous campaign donors and enthusiastic backers in this year’s reelection campaign, particularly after he decided to express his support for same-sex marriage.

Hagel, whose nomination could come as early as Friday, declined through a spokesman to comment. White House officials declined to discuss the complaints or Hagel’s potential nomination.

Press secretary Jay Carney, asked Thursday about pro-Israel groups’ concerns, offered a general defense of the former senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran. Hagel “fought and bled for his country,” Carney said. “He served his country well. He was an excellent senator.”

In defending Hagel, both publicly and in private, White House officials appear to be trying to avoid a repeat of their experience with the would-be nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Rice, Obama’s U.N. ambassador, withdrew from contention amid questions about her role in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Hagel, a centrist Republican who served in the Senate from 1997 to 2009 and often criticized George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, would add additional bipartisan heft to the Obama Cabinet. His presence could add credibility during what is expected to be a period of deep cuts in defense programs.

Gay rights groups said Thursday that if Hagel becomes defense secretary, he will oversee final implementation of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred openly gay service members. In addition, same-sex couples are pressing for equal treatment in the military on issues such as housing and spousal protection.

The Human Rights Campaign, which judges lawmakers on votes on such matters as hate-crimes legislation, gave Hagel a “zero” grade during most of his time as a senator.

Allyson Robinson, executive director of the group OutServe-SLDN, which represents gay and lesbian service members, veterans and their families, said she and other advocates would push senators to question Hagel aggressively on his gay rights views and record.

“Our expectation of the president is that anyone that he would consider for this office would be fully prepared to embrace the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ with all of its implications,” Robinson said.

Criticism among gay men and lesbians began surfacing last week when Stacey Long, a lobbyist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was quoted on a gay Web site saying, “We are gravely concerned about his track record on civil rights and opposition to LGBT equality.”

One key point of contention is Hagel’s comments to Nebraska reporters in 1998 about James Hormel, nominated by Bill Clinton to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel was openly gay, and Hagel said he was worried about how Hormel’s sexual orientation would be viewed abroad.

Ambassadors “are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards,” Hagel said, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”

The mounting pressure Thursday raised the possibility of an unusual alliance of Washington interest groups, with some conservative Israel supporters joining gay rights advocates in criticizing Hagel’s potential nomination. Some Israel supporters, viewing Hagel’s gay rights record as a new vulnerability, are scouring Hagel’s record and encouraging gay groups to speak out, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

Some pro-Israel activists complained at a White House Hanukkah party last week that, as a U.S. senator, Hagel had often voted against Israel’s interests. Hagel voted against imposing sanctions on Iran in 2004, 2007, and 2008, as the Islamic Republic continued a uranium-enrichment program that it says is for civilian energy purposes but that Israeli officials and others say is to make a nuclear weapon. After leaving office, Hagel advised Obama to open talks with Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip and rejects Israel’s right to exist.

In Aaron David Miller’s 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” Hagel criticized Israel advocates’ influence in Congress, saying the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

Deb Fiddelke, who was Hagel’s communications director during his first Senate term, said his remarks on gay people and Israel were being taken out of context.

“I don’t think it’s fair to extrapolate an entire worldview from one comment,” she said. “I always found him to be very respectful.”

Fiddelke added: “He is in nomination purgatory. He can’t defend himself.”