Friday, March 9, 2007

Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, the Senate Republican most outspoken in opposition to President Bush’s March 2003 decision to invade Iraq, is expected to announce Monday that he will make a bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Mr. Hagel’s candidacy could refocus the presidential contest debate, adding his Iraq doubts to those of former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, currently the only prominent Republican in the race who has been skeptical about the basis of the war from the beginning.

The question on nearly every Republican’s lips yesterday was whether Mr. Hagel can raise the $100 million-plus that campaign analysts say will be needed by the end of this year to be a serious 2008 nomination contender.

“Hagel has a strong conservative record and great campaign skills, and if he could raise money, he could be a serious competitor,” said Charles Black, who has advised every Republican presidential campaign in the past 31 years. “But his opposition to the president on the Iraq war would deny him access to the great majority of primary voters. Most of them support Bush on Iraq.”

In Nebraska, Republican officials and operatives say Mr. Hagel could raise money as an anti-war Republican presidential aspirant, especially from the Omaha business community, which strongly supports him.

“He is very popular in Nebraska, and that popularity could translate into a popularity nationwide,” said Nebraska Republican Chairman Mark Quandahl.

Most in the party agree with Michigan Republican Chairman Saul Anuzis, who said the constituency for a Hagel candidacy “at this point is probably minimal, even though he is bright and I like him personally.”

Mr. Hagel, who has been a target of administration criticism more than almost any other Republican lawmaker because of his war stance, said on the Senate floor six months before the invasion that the “American people must be told of the long-term commitment, risk and cost of this undertaking … [and] not be seduced by the expectations of ‘dancing in the streets’ after Saddam’s regime has fallen.”

Vice President Dick Cheney told Newsweek last month that while he believes in Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” against speaking ill of a fellow Republican, “it’s very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.”

In 2002, Mr. Hagel said the Senate “should spend more time debating the cost and extent of this commitment, the risks we may face in a military engagement with Iraq, the implications of the precedent of U.S. military action for regime change, and the likely character and challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq.”

Mr. Hagel’s overall record is solid, said American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.

“Chuck Hagel is bright, decent and conservative on almost all issues,” Mr. Keene said. “Indeed, his lifetime ACU rating is over 85, and we consider anyone who scores 80 or above a fairly reliable conservative.”

Conservatives as prominent as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan have praised Mr. Hagel’s “guts” in opposing the latest U.S. troop surge and sharing the blame for Congress not debating the pros and cons of the war sufficiently before the invasion. Nearly all say the Nebraskan’s stance is honorable.

“Hagel is criticized for what many see as grandstanding on the Iraq war, but his critique of the problems we face there has been more right than wrong since our forces landed there,” Mr. Keene said. “He may be right or wrong on Iraq, but no one can question his base conservatism or his devotion to a strong United States.”

Unlike Mr. Gilmore, however, Mr. Hagel and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, another Republican presidential hopeful, have opposed the latest troop surge in Iraq.

Mr. Keene estimates that “perhaps 15 percent of conservatives and more Republicans share Hagel’s position even today, and that could make him a factor, especially if the ‘bad’ news out of Iraq continues.”

Mr. Gilmore disputes Mr. Hagel’s conservative credentials.

“Hagel is the fourth addition to the cluster of moderate candidates that include Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain,” Mr. Gilmore said. “They will be dividing up the small minority of moderate vote in the GOP.”

Mr. Keene thinks Mr. Hagel has a far different image problem. “He is seen as opposing an incumbent president of his own party during wartime and, I think, his perhaps naive faith in international institutions and solutions.”

“He would make the race more interesting but would have an incredibly difficult time appealing to the GOP base at this time,” Mr. Keene said.

Mr. Hagel is regarded as an ideological soulmate of Arizona Sen. John McCain on changing campaign-finance rules and other issues, but Mr. McCain has become as strong a supporter of increasing the U.S. force in Iraq while Mr. Hagel is a doubter. Meanwhile, both men’s conservative ratings plunged last year.

Mr. Hagel’s American Conservative Union rating for 2006, posted on ACU Web site yesterday was 75, down 21 points from his 2005 score of 96. He voted contrary to conservative positions on defining earmarks in appropriations bills, on allowing “native” Hawaiians to form a government within the broader state government, and on immigration and border-enforcement changes, among other things.

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