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Despite Presidential Flirtation, Hagel Assures NRSC He’ll Seek Re-election

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has assured the National Republican Senatorial Committee that he intends to run for re-election next year — although that decision does not mean he has chosen to forgo a presidential bid, which he continues to seriously consider.

Sources familiar with Hagel’s thinking say the Senator has no desire to exit elective office in 2008, and they expect him to run for re-election to the Senate if his prospective bid for the Republican presidential nomination falls short. Because the presidential primary season is front-loaded with key January races, the Senator’s status in that contest probably would be determined by Nebraska’s Feb. 15 filing deadline for incumbents, leaving him sufficient time to transition to a Senate race.

“Sen. Hagel has told the NRSC that he plans to run for re-election,” said a Republican operative based in Washington, D.C. “But as with all Senators up for re-election, things can certainly change.”

Until the outcome of any bid for the White House becomes clear, Hagel could even run for Senate and president simultaneously. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) did just that in 2000, when he was re-elected to the Senate even as he came within a whisker of being elected vice president.

Hagel’s Senate office declined on Monday to comment on his political future, other than to say the Senator would announce his plans in the next couple of weeks.

According to a Republican familiar with Hagel’s thinking, the Senator would not run for president as a fringe candidate, basing any decision to enter the contest on his ability, in particular, to impact the debate on Iraq specifically and foreign policy and national security generally.

Similarly, it’s that desire to influence foreign policy and national security strategy that is likely to keep Hagel from retiring from the Senate outright or adopting a run-for-president-or-bust approach to his political future.

“I think Sen. Hagel believes the country is at an important crossroads from an international and security standpoint,” said Republican strategist Doug McAuliffe, who has worked as Hagel’s media consultant. “I find it hard to believe, with the nation facing such a critical policy debate about its future, that Chuck Hagel would be sitting on the sidelines two years from now.”

Hagel has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and he has voted with President Bush on legislation as much, or more, than many of his Republican colleagues.

But the Senator, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has been a virulent critic of Bush’s Iraq War policy, particularly in the weeks since the president unveiled his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops there.

The “surge,” as it is being called, is designed to pacify the sectarian violence that has plagued Baghdad and thwarted U.S. attempts to foster a functioning and stable democracy in Iraq. However, Hagel has called the war the biggest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War.

In national TV interviews this past weekend, Hagel did not completely rule out the possibility of running for president as an Independent, though most Republicans see that as highly unlikely.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) announced just last week that he will retire when his term expires next year; and with the NRSC having to defend 21 seats this cycle to the Democrats’ 12, the GOP is trying to keep open Senate seats to a minimum.

The NRSC is confident that Hagel, who is 60, will be sticking around through 2014. But should he either win the GOP presidential nomination or retire, there are a handful of potential Republican candidates who could be in a good position to succeed him.

The two most talked about in Cornhusker State GOP circles are state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) and Hal Daub (R), a former Congressman and ex-mayor of Omaha. A December poll sponsored by a Bruning supporter showed the Republican in a strong position to win the GOP Senate nomination if Hagel relinquishes his seat.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (R), who served as governor until Bush tapped him for his current post, also is considered to be in the top tier of potential Hagel replacements, with Republicans confident they can hold the seat in 2008 even if it opens up. Nebraska leans Republican — and tends to be even more GOP-friendly in presidential cycles.

“I don’t think we want to take anything for granted. But I think we feel comfortable that the seat will remain in Republican hands,” said Nebraska GOP spokeswoman Tiffiny Carlton.

Although Hagel’s anti-war stance could bring him a challenge in the May 9, 2008, Republican primary, Nebraska Republicans say he is unlikely to face a serious threat from inside his own party.

On the Democratic side, the most popular names among party activists to run for the Senate are Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and Scott Kleeb, the Ivy League-educated western Nebraska rancher who lost to now-Rep. Adrian Smith (R) in last year’s race for the 3rd district.

Fahey and Kleeb, as well as the potential Republican candidates, have been silent on their 2008 plans, waiting to see what Hagel does before making any decisions. Both are seen as far more likely to run if Hagel retires.

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