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Paul steps onto trail where Hagel hesitates

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

Republicans yesterday expected Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to declare a run for his party's presidential nomination as a peace candidate.

Instead, they got Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, as a peace candidate.

While much of the political press traveled to Omaha, Neb., vainly hoping for news that Mr. Hagel would enter the presidential race, Mr. Paul stayed in Washington and announced his candidacy on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal."

Mr. Hagel, 60, announced last week that he would have an important announcement this week about his future. He is an occasional ally of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and is President Bush's toughest Iraq war critic among his party's senators.

So tension was as high as could be expected, with at least 10 real or suspected Republicans hopefuls already competing, mostly unsuccessfully, for press and voter attention.

With TV cameras rolling, it was Mr. Hagel's moment. He seized the day, or at least the microphone, to announce that his important announcement was -- wait for it -- that he would have an even more important announcement. About, yes, his future. Sometime in the future.

"I'm here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year," Mr. Hagel said at an Omaha press conference, carried live on cable television and touted all weekend as a likely presidential announcement. "I believe there will still be political options open to me at a later date. ... I'm not there yet."

Even longtime acquaintances of Mr. Hagel had difficulty treating the question of his candidacy seriously. Irony at the Nebraskan's expense was the rule.

"The Chuck Hagel candidacy we might still get will unite the virulent Republican anti-war caucus with the electoral strength of Nebraska," said Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based conservative activist and businessman. "Fortunately, Minneapolis has phone booths spacious enough to host this caucus at the GOP national convention in 2008."

What impact would Mr. Hagel have had on the crowded Republican nomination field? "Almost nothing," said Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich.

"He has almost no following in conservative and Republican circles. He and McCain were buddies, but now he is against the war," said Mr. Weyrich, who also doesn't fly with the war hawks in his party. "Many conservatives and Republicans are also against the war, but they want no part of his candidacy, which seems to be based on bitterness."

Mr. Paul, the 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, said yesterday morning on C-SPAN that he was reluctant to make another White House run, but "a lot of people want to hear my message, and I'm willing to deliver it."

An obstetrician before entering politics, Mr. Paul, 61, has been nicknamed "Dr. No" for his willingness to vote against measures he considers unconstitutional.

"The American people now have a real conservative in the race for president they can support," said Paul campaign chairman Kent Snyder, calling the Texas Republican "a true conservative."

Support for the Iraq war has softened in the past two years, but a majority of Republican voters still support the war, which makes it difficult for "an anti-war Republican like Chuck Hagel to successfully compete for the GOP presidential nomination," said Fritz Wenzel, communication director for Zogby International.

Fifty-four percent of likely Republican primary voters still think the Iraq war has been worth the loss of American lives, according to a Zogby survey of 388 likely Republican primary voters conducted Feb. 22 to 24. The survey carries a margin of error of three percentage points.

"In the months to come, Republican disapproval of the war will have to rise dramatically from its current level of 34 percent if candidates with Hagel's stance are to have any chance at all," Mr. Wenzel said.