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A Chuck Hagel endorsement of John McCain is no gimme

March 23, 2008 |  2:55 pm

Republicans Chuck Hagel and John McCain have served in the Senate together for more than a decade. Both are Vietnam veterans. Both have reputations as GOP mavericks who have worked closely with their Democratic colleagues on legislation.

So Hagel's all lined up to endorse McCain as the GOP standard-bearer once the nomination becomes official this summer, right?

Not so fast.

In an appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Hagel ...

... said his support for his party's presumptive nominee was not automatic, even though he called the Arizona senator a "dear friend of mine."

"When I endorse someone, or when I work for someone, or commit to someone, I want to be behind that person in every way I can," he told host George Stephanopoulos. "I've obviously got some differences with John on the Iraq war.  That's no secret. 

"I want to understand a little more about foreign policy, where he'd want to go. Certainly doesn't put me in [Barack] Obama or [Hillary] Clinton's camp.  But John and I have some pretty fundamental disagreements on the future of foreign policy."

McCain, of course, backs the Bush administration's troop "surge" in Iraq, while Hagel has been a strong critic.

"If all of this is working so well ... than why [is] the Bush administration now talking about keeping brigades in there at 140,000, larger [troop numbers] than what we had in there when the surge started?" Hagel asked Sunday. "Why did Gen. [David H.] Petraeus say last week, Gen. Petraeus, that there has not been commensurate political progress?

"That, in the end, is all that's going to matter anyway. What the surge was all about ... was trying to buy time for the Iraqis. They have not used that time very well. "

Hagel toyed with the idea of a 2008 presidential campaign himself but decided against it. He was mentioned as a possible running mate if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the plunge as an independent candidate for the White House, but Bloomberg has said that's not going to happen this year. Now, Hagel is in his final months in the Senate, having announced last year that he's not seeking re-election in November.

There have been rumors that if Obama is elected, Hagel could be in line for a cabinet post, perhaps as Defense secretary. Stephanopoulos even noted that in a new book,  "America: Our Next Chapter," Hagel urged the next president, whoever it is, to name members of both parties to cabinet positions. So is the Nebraska senator interested?

Not surprisingly, Hagel was coy. His next job, he told Stephanopoulos, is "maybe your driver, George."

-- Leslie Hoffecker