A Reluctant Rebel's Yell; from Vietnam to Capitol Hill, Chuck Hagel Has Never Been Afraid to Fight. Now He Talks about What Could Be His Biggest Battle Yet: A Run for the White House

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Byline: Jonathan Darman (With Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey)

Chuck Hagel wears pain on his face. The senior senator from Nebraska earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, where a mine blew out his eardrums and delivered a sharp burn up the left side of his head. When he is thinking hard, his brow droops low, weighted and weary; when he smiles, his eyes slip into thin slits. His brother Tom calls this Hagel's "running gear"--the thick mask of intensity he shows the world.

That intensity was on display last Wednesday as he sat and stewed at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The panel was considering a resolution condemning President Bush's proposal to send 21,000 additional troops to Iraq; Hagel, a cosponsor of the resolution, would be the only Republican on the committee to vote for its passage. As he listened to his colleagues make their cases for and against the president's plan, Hagel told NEWSWEEK he noticed something missing: an acknowledgment that the Senate was talking about committing real troops, the men and women whose "fighting and dying" make a war. He had no prepared text but the words came easily as he took his turn at the mike. Calling Iraq the country's most divisive issue since Vietnam, he dared his fellow committee members to take a stand. "I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line on this," he said. "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes." For a moment, his colleagues were silent and stunned. Later that afternoon, Joe Biden, the committee's Democratic chairman,complimented him on his performance. "I've rarely seen such a powerful connection between the heart and the mind," Biden said. "That was deep in you."

Viewed from afar, the stuff inside Hagel looks like the stuff that makes Republican presidential candidates. He is a third-generation party member who grew up idolizing Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. He says he was the only student in his Roman Catholic high school to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election--and when he cast his first vote, an absentee ballot from Vietnam, it was for Nixon's winning ticket in 1968. His conservative credentials are impeccable: according to Congressional Quarterly, he voted with the White House more times in 2006 than any other senator. He is manly, Middle American--and when he talks about military matters, he exudes the cool confidence of a warrior-statesman who knows that war is hell.

But Hagel, who as of late last week was in the final stages of weighing a presidential run, is never mentioned in the top tier of Republican candidates for one, simple reason: since the initial buildup to the war in Iraq, he has assailed the Bush administration's policy--in sharp words, in constant refrain and, most unforgivably, in public. His outburst last week was the culmination of a four-year campaign to raise public outrage about a war he's always considered disastrous. His stance has earned him the enmity of the White House. Asked about Hagel last week in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Vice President Dick Che-ney said: "I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow republican. But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved."

Cheney, however, doesn't necessarily speak for his party. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, only 30 percent of voters approve of Bush's performance as president. Even 31 percent of Republicans think Congress has not done enough to challenge the administration on the war. After the disastrous 2006 midterm elections, Republicans are no longer taking their talking points on Iraq from the White House--several members of Hagel's caucus have suggested they'd support a resolution criticizing the surge when it comes before the Senate this week. Meanwhile, the three leading contenders for the Republican nomination, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are all vulnerable on the war--all three are in the minority of Americans who support the president's plan. …