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A Tale of Two GOP Hopefuls

By Tom Bevan

This week we witnessed a tale of two potential Republican presidential hopefuls. The first part of the story began Sunday when former Tennessee senator and current ''Law & Order'' star Fred Thompson sat down for an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks that Thompson was entertaining the idea of jumping into the presidential race, and on Sunday Thompson confirmed that he is thinking about it and "leaving the door open" for a possible run. Thompson's willingness to consider entering the fray is based almost entirely on the fact that so many Republican primary voters appear less than thrilled with the current crop of candidates.

Thompson is likeable, charismatic and in sync with the Republican base on most core issues. If he were to be drawn into the race in the next few months at the behest of party loyalists, Thompson would be a formidable challenger and would almost certainly vault into the ranks of top-tier candidates in no time flat.

The other part of this week's story took place on Monday when Sen. Chuck Hagel called the national press corps together in Omaha, Neb., to make what had been billed as a "major announcement." Instead Hagel fired a political blank, announcing that he had decided to wait a few more months before making another announcement about his future.

Despite that bit of bizarre political theater, Hagel has been toying seriously with the idea of a run for some time. He is an experienced legislator, a war hero and solidly conservative on nearly every issue but one: Iraq. Hagel has been the most vocal Republican critic of the war by far, labeling it a "tragedy" and the worst U.S. foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.

Some have suggested that Hagel's harsh criticism of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war coupled with his conservative bona fides on other issues could win him a sizeable following among Republicans who are frustrated and upset by the way Iraq has gone thus far. That notion is simply not supported by any evidence.

To the contrary, most major polls have been including Hagel's name as a potential candidate for some time. Two national surveys were released recently pegging Republican support for Hagel at 2 percent and less than 1 percent. Those numbers would surely go up a point or two if Hagel officially tossed his hat in the ring, and perhaps a point or two more as people learned more about him over the course of the campaign. But any hint of a groundswell of support for Hagel among Republicans, to put it politely, remains very well hidden.

The moral of the story is that there is still ample room in the Republican field for the right candidate. That candidate may or may not be Thompson, but it won't be Hagel.

Hagel fails to appeal to Republicans not only because of what he says about Iraq, but also because of how he says it. Most Republicans are still generally supportive of the war, and despite the growing frustration they continue to believe the stakes are high and would like to see the policy succeed. That doesn't mean that criticism of the administration is off limits, however, but it does mean that there is still a sense of solidarity and at least some desire to hew to Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment (Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans) and to disagree without being disagreeable.

The final twist in the story is that Hagel gave a few hints on Monday that he may be positioning himself to run as an independent. But it's hard to see how Hagel would be able to muster much support going that route either. The lure of an independent bid is a candidate who takes moderate, mainstream and/or unorthodox positions on a variety of issues. Hagel is more or less a down-the-line conservative who happens to be an apostate on Iraq. Those who are adamantly against the war will most likely vote Democrat, and those who lean conservative but are frustrated with Iraq will most likely stick with the Republican candidate -- especially if that candidate offers a legitimate hope of prosecuting the war with more competence and better results than the current administration. That leaves a very small pool of voters for Hagel to draw from.

But even though he won't have a serious chance of winning, Hagel may still take the plunge as an independent. Therein lays an ironic subplot to the story: If the race between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees does turn out to be close, a third-party bid by Hagel might result in a most unhappy ending for Republicans in 2008.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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