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The Case for Chuck Hagel

No senator has drawn more attention over the past few weeks than Chuck Hagel, the Republican from Nebraska. Hagel has emerged as one of the most strident critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, a stance that has won him kudos from across the aisle (Hagel has replaced Sen. John McCain as the Republican Democrats love to love) but gained him few friends within his own party.

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska
Is Hagel the John McCain of 2008? (Bloomberg Photo)

Hagel makes no secret that he is considering a run for president, but he has said little about when he will make a decision. As Hagel ponders, so will we. Today, The Fix makes the case for a bid by the Nebraska senator. (Check back tomorrow for the case against.)

Neither of these posts should be read as the definitive take on whether Hagel should run or not. Rather, they are meant to spark conversation, so feel free to agree, disagree, condemn or compliment in the comments section below.

The Time Is Right For Hagel

If the situation in Iraq fails to improve soon, the war will be the central issue in the nomination fights for both parties. For Democratic candidates, a winning message is quite simple: We need to get our troops out of the country as soon as possible without allowing the situation to descend into chaos.

For Republicans, however, it is not entirely clear what a winning primary message on Iraq would be.

The most conservative of Republicans -- those who traditionally dominate presidential primaries -- remain largely supportive of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq or at least believe that the alternative promises sure defeat. The three Republican frontrunners -- McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- have largely backed the president on Iraq, including his latest proposal to send another 21,500 troops to the country.

But if public opinion polling is to be trusted, there is a large bloc even within the Republican Party that believes that a fundamental policy change is needed if we can hope to salvage Iraq.

Enter Hagel, who has spoken out forcefully on the need for a reassessment of America's approach to the war. And, because of his life story, which includes a decorated tour of duty in Vietnam, it's difficult to impugn his credentials or right to speak out on the issue. For Republican primary voters looking for a change of direction in Iraq, Hagel is the obvious choice.

Hagel's renegade stance on Iraq is part of a larger, maverick persona that could also serve to distinguish him from the rest of the field in 2008. In 2000, McCain rode the image of an outsider committed to reform almost all the way to the Republican nomination, a blueprint Hagel is sure to gain some inspiration from should he decide to run.

It was long assumed that McCain's candidacy in 2008 precluded a serious bid by Hagel, who was one of McCain's strongest Senate supporters in 2000. The early thinking pondered why would people need two reformers in the GOP race? But McCain's decision to move more toward the establishment wing of the party over the past few years has left Hagel an opening to run as the anti-establishment candidate in the field.

It's not an unfamiliar role. When Hagel ran for the Senate in 1996, he was given little chance against then Gov. Ben Nelson (D). But in a year when President Clinton was cruising to reelection nationally, Hagel won by a surprisingly large margin (14 points), emphasizing his business background and refusing urgings from the national party to attack Nelson harshly in the final weeks of the race.

Winning a Senate contest in Nebraska does not equate to a becoming the Republican Party's presidential nominee, but Hagel clearly relishes the underdog role and knows something about running against conventional wisdom.

Iowa will be the proving ground for Hagel. Hawkeye state voters share many of the same values and concerns as their neighbors in Nebraska. For example, Hagel has been a leading advocate for the increased use of ethanol in gasoline -- a significant boon to his chances in ethanol-producing Iowa. And, although Hagel would clearly be the anti-Bush candidate in the race, he is solid on issue like abortion that social conservatives, who tend to be the most powerful bloc of voters in the Iowa caucuses, care most about.

Viewed in that way, Hagel's candidacy is an intriguing one. He offers voters change when it comes to Iraq but in a package (military veteran, successful businessman, red-state senator, conservative) that is reassuring and somewhat familiar. If GOP voters in Iowa -- and beyond -- are looking to make a break with the last eight years without throwing out their core principles on social issues, Hagel could be well-positioned to surprise.

Tomorrow: The Case Against Hagel 2008.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 31, 2007; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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