Mar. 7, 2007 -- Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has not announced whether he will run for president in 2008. But his decision to tell two labor groups that he wants to participate in their upcoming presidential "cattle calls" might be showing his hand, according to the firefighter and construction groups which are slated to hear from the Nebraska senator in Washington, D.C. over the next three weeks.
"It was made absolutely clear to him that he was coming to speak at a forum where all the major presidential candidates were invited to speak," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, regarding Hagel's decision to speak to the firefighters in Washington, D.C. on March 14.
The firefighters are not the only ones to see significance in Hagel's cattle-call speaking schedule.
"I think it's fair to say that if Sen. Hagel is accepting the invitation to be a participant in a presidential candidates' forum that he is, in fact, a candidate for president," said Helen Corbertt, the communications director for the Building and Construction Trades Department, the alliance of craft unions which is slated to hear from Hagel on March 28.
The rumblings about a possible Hagel entrance into the presidential race come five and one-half weeks after Hagel told the Washington Post that he would make a decision in the next six weeks.
Hagel's own political director remains tight-lipped about Hagel's plans, saying that Hagel is still weighing his options, which have long been described as including running for president, running for re-election to the Senate, or leaving elective politics altogether.
"Sen. Hagel has not made a decision about his political future," Hagel political director Kevin Chapman told ABC News. "But will, most likely, talk about his political future, as he has said publicly, in the next few weeks."
Speaking to the firefighters along with Hagel on March 14 will be three other Republicans -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- along with six Democrats: Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.
At present, Hagel is the only Republican who has confirmed that he will participate in the Building and Construction Trades forum. The others who have agreed to participate are Democrats Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Obama, and Richardson.
Hagel is the only participant in either cattle call who has not formed a legal entity with the Federal Election Commission allowing him to raise money for a presidential bid.
If Hagel pursues the GOP's presidential nomination, he would instantly become the most outspoken critic of the war in the Republican field. The three leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination -- Giuliani, McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass. -- have largely backed Bush on Iraq and all have endorsed the president's troop surge.
Although Hagel may appeal to Republicans disillusioned with the Iraq war, some Republican strategists believe that a majority of G.O.P. primary voters will still support Bush's Iraq policy when the voting takes place in early 2008.
Former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein predicted last week during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution co-sponsored by ABC News that no G.O.P. candidate who wants to be the party's standard bearer can afford to make a total break with Bush on Iraq.
"To go the other way," said Duberstein, "I think flies in the face of . . . having any viable way of getting the nomination."
It is precisely this kind of thinking that makes some political observers wonder if Hagel, who has been approached by organizers of Unity '08, might ultimately end up taking a less traditional path if he is not able to win the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.
In his January interview with The Washington Post, Hagel "joked" about "teaming up" with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a moderate Republican who is considering an independent presidential bid, and also "floated the possibility" of joining a bipartisan unity ticket with a Democrat -- "with his name first, of course."