Nebraska's Hagel Confirms He Will Bow Out

Sen. Chuck Hagel, the anti-war Republican from Nebraska, made it clear Monday that he will not seek the presidency in 2008. He also confirms he will not seek re-election to the Senate.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel announced today that he will not seek reelection next year.

As Fred Knapp of Nebraska Public Radio reports, the senator's decision has Democrats hopeful and Republicans worried about holding on to another endangered Senate seat.

FRED KNAPP: There was little suspense about Hagel's decision, which was the subject of speculation for months and published reports over the weekend. And so when he strode to the podium and made his announcement, it sounded like the prepared statement that it was.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): I'm here with my family this morning to announce that I will not seek a third term in the United States Senate, nor do I intend to be a candidate for any office in 2008.

KNAPP: But there was no scripting what happened next as the two-term senator explained his reasoning to supporters and media representatives at the Omaha Press Club. As Hagel spoke, a framed caricature of him hanging on the wall behind him succumbed to the forces of gravity.

Sen. HAGEL: I will leave the Senate with the same enthusiasm, sense of purpose.

(Soundbite of frame falling)

Sen. HAGEL: It's not a good sign. It's a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KNAPP: In a way, it was art-imitating-life for the conservative Republican senator. Just six months ago, he was widely seen to be on the verge of declaring a presidential candidacy. National media flocked to Omaha to cover a press conference on his future plans only to be told that he would announce his decision at a later time. Next, Nebraska's Republican attorney general announced he would challenge Hagel for the GOP Senate nomination next year, citing reasons including the senator's outspoken criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq. Hagel voted to authorize that war, but the twice-wounded Vietnam veteran quickly became one of its leading Republican critics, eventually siding with Democrats and voting for a withdrawal timetable.

Despite Hagel's retirement announcement, Nebraska's Republican Governor Dave Heineman says he expects the party to be in a strong position. In addition to candidates who have announced or say they're considering running, many Republicans hope former governor and current secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, will enter the race. And while Johanns isn't saying, Heineman expects the Ag secretary will run.

Governor DAVE HEINEMAN (Republican, Nebraska): So I think we're going to have very competitive primary, and the winner of that primary will undoubtedly be the favorite in the general election.

KNAPP: But that may not be a sure thing. Despite a heavy Republican advantage in voter registration, Democrats have won nine of the last eleven senatorial elections in Nebraska. Next year, many Democrats are pinning their hopes on a return bid by former Senator Bob Kerrey who retired in 2001 and is now president of The New School University in New York. Kerrey says he's not ready to discuss his future plans.

Hagel has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg runs as an independent. Asked if he would turn down such an offer, Hagel said he did not want to speculate.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Knapp in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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