Putting off getting into the '08 race could pay off for Hagel
BY JAKE THOMPSON AND TIM ELFRINK
WASHINGTON - While Chuck Hagel has been contemplating whether to seek the presidency, 18 other politicians started running.
Two opted out of the race.
Two launched campaign efforts, then quit.
Still, Hagel ponders.
Last week, on a four-day swing through Nebraska, the Republican senator put it off again.
"We'll make that decision one of these days," he said. "And I'll let you know."
Among established politicians flirting with the 2008 race, Hagel and former New York Gov. George Pataki are the most notable prospects who have yet to reveal their plans.
Political analysts say the delay could hurt - or help.
Starting late puts Hagel at a disadvantage in raising funds, identifying supporters and putting forth a campaign message, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report.
But if Hagel were to run, he could occupy an unusual niche, such as the anti-Iraq war Republican, Rothenberg said.
"It's getting too late, but he's a quirky candidate, so they are allowed to run quirkier campaigns," Rothenberg said.
Republican consultant Scott Reed, who was campaign manager for former Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential bid, agreed that if Hagel runs, it will be a different kind of campaign.
Hagel's views on the Iraq war - he supports beginning to withdraw U.S. forces this year - puts him in line with 66 percent of Americans who, polls show, oppose the war. That could be potent fuel for a campaign, Reed said.
"He'll have a lone voice on a hot issue, and that'll be the strategy," Reed said.
Hagel has waited so long now, he's reaching a point where it might make sense to hold off, perhaps until fall, said Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, an electronic newsletter that tracks American politics.
That would let the other candidates spend their money, knock one another around and, perhaps, wear out their welcome, Todd suggested.
"If he waits, he becomes the new flavor."
That's the strategy adopted by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
"Hagel could say, 'My friend Newt Gingrich has the right idea. Let's see what this thing looks like in September,'" Sabato said.
Hagel seems to be genuinely wrestling with the decision.
Those who have spoken with him say a big concern is the potential impact a presidential campaign would have on his wife, Lilibet, and their two teenage children.
Meanwhile, rumors in Nebraska and Washington have run wild: Hagel's about to announce; he's setting up an exploratory committee; he's setting up a committee and quitting the Senate; he's sidestepping the presidential race; he's running for re-election to the Senate.
Often people ask him directly, but they don't get far. Even kids are getting into the act.
Speaking to about 90 fourth- and fifth-graders at a Kearney elementary school on Thursday, Hagel tested the waters for his presidential bid.
"Should I run?" he asked.
"Yes!" the kids screamed in unison.
"Well, maybe I'll just announce right now," he said.
"We'd like that," a teacher said.
But Hagel declined their invitation, just as he has during persistent questioning from reporters.
On a flight from Kearney to Omaha, Hagel acknowledged that his family is the biggest consideration. Specifically, he worries about a loss of privacy for his daughter, 16-year-old Allyn, and his son, Ziller, 14.
"When you commit yourself to something this big and throw yourself onto the national stage, that strips them of all privacy. I would never do this unless I had the full support of my family," he said.
He expressed confidence they could handle the challenge because, for most of their lives, he's been in politics.
"But I have to consider what this does to them as individuals. . . . Suddenly they're not Allyn and Ziller, they're just the presidential candidate's kids."
He's working through other issues, too, such as weighing his ability to raise enough money for a campaign. He says he has been encouraged by what he's heard so far.
He said he won't run unless he's confident he could win, but it's even more important to him that he feels passionately about the race.
"You have to believe in something strongly enough to commit yourself to it," he said.
As for when he'll make a move, Hagel said he's done his best not to set a specific deadline.
"I've said I'll make a decision in the next few weeks, and that's still the case."
After he first disclosed an interest in the presidential contest in August 2004, Hagel said he would decide after the 2006 elections. He repeated that through 2005 and 2006.
Interviewed the day after the Nov. 7 election, Hagel pushed the timetable back, saying: "I will announce what I intend to do regarding my political future sometime early next year."
In a Nov. 29, 2006, column, Washington Post writer David Ignatius said Hagel had indicated a formal decision would be made within two months.
After the first of the year, Hagel and his spokesman, Mike Buttry, began repeatedly saying it would come within "the next couple of weeks."
That's now seven weeks and counting.
Last Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Hagel told host Tim Russert, "I'll make a decision within a couple of weeks and make it public."
And asked Thursday whether an announcement would come before or after a trip he's planning to Iraq next month, he said it depends on when exactly the trip is scheduled.