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Associated Press
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, speaking at the White House this month, has used an “aggressive strategy” to win support as defense secretary, an aide says.

Hagel on offensive against reputation

Defense nominee works to win support

– Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator tapped to become the next secretary of defense, has gone on a charm offensive in the lead-up to his confirmation hearing today.

Hagel is attempting to beat back a well-funded, aggressive campaign that has sought to depict him as an anti-Israel, homophobic politician eager to gut the Pentagon’s budget.

Hagel’s pushback during meetings with more than 50 senators and leaders of special-interest groups this month appears to have been effective, said an official helping him prepare for the hearing.

The effort to vilify Hagel and his record, which began when his name was first floated for the job in December, has remained at a buzz but has not reached the type of crescendo that has doomed high-profile political nominations in the past.

“We’ve had a very aggressive strategy for tackling some of the issues that have been raised,” the Hagel aide said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the nominee’s outlook. “I think we’re in a good place.”

That’s not to say Hagel’s confirmation is a forgone conclusion, supporters concede. Critics have piled onto the initial critiques with charges that Hagel’s ties to defense contractors and other private-sector firms may create conflicts of interest. They also have criticized his support for a global movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hagel will face tough questions about his past statements.

Democrats outnumber Republicans on the panel 14 to 12, but committee insiders say they are not assuming Hagel will get the vote of every Democrat.

“The confirmation will not be an easy one,” Levin said in a recent interview. “On the other hand, a lot of people who have worked with Hagel remember him as someone who was effective here, involved in foreign affairs, well-qualified.”

Hagel, 66, a Vietnam veteran, is counting on those bonds, the aide said.

“If you read the tea leaves, I think he might get more Republican votes than people might think,” the official said. “Those relationships are important.”

After today’s hearing, senators can submit additional written questions to Hagel. The committee and the full Senate could vote next week.

Hagel’s opening remarks will offer a blunt rebuttal to his critics, including conservative groups formed to foil his nomination. The official helping Hagel prepare said he also intends to offer a clear-eyed view of the Pentagon’s fiscal challenges; convey his commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons; and voice strong support for the U.S. alliance with Israel.

Opposition from gay rights activists over disparaging remarks that Hagel made in 1998 about an openly gay man nominated for an ambassadorship has largely subsided.

James Hormel, the former diplomat Hagel disparaged as “aggressively gay,” endorsed him this week, saying he believes Hagel’s views have evolved. Hagel has said he is committed to expanding benefits to same-sex military couples.

The former senator will also say he will try to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which will come into effect March 1 if the White House and lawmakers do not reach a deal – a prospect that appears increasingly likely.

Sen. James Inhofe, Okla., the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he and other senators who oppose Hagel have not been convinced by his efforts to clarify, retract or expand on previous positions.

He said Hagel’s perceived lukewarm commitment to Israel’s security will probably be the nominee’s chief vulnerability.

Inhofe and five other Republican lawmakers opened a new line of inquiry this week, asking Hagel in a letter to answer detailed questions about his ties to several companies that together paid him more than $1 million last year.

MIC Industries in Reston, Va., paid Hagel $120,000 last year. Since 2008, the company has received more than $50 million in Defense Department contracts, according to federal contracting records. Hagel received $116,000 last year from Chevron, which has billed the Defense Department more than $1.5 billion since 2008.

It is not uncommon for high-profile former lawmakers to land lucrative consulting fees and posts on company boards.