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War critic Hagel delays decision on presidential run

Story Highlights

NEW: Nebraska Sen. Hagel fears long campaign may damage "system"
• Outspoken critic of Iraq war says he wants to focus on important issues
• Poll: 79 percent "unsure" of their opinion of Hagel
• He called Iraq troop increase the most dangerous blunder since Vietnam
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OMAHA, Nebraska (CNN) -- Outspoken war critic Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican presidential contender, said Monday he will make a decision on his political future later this year.

At a news conference at his University of Nebraska alma mater, Hagel said the Iraq war is America's "most divisive and difficult issue since Vietnam" and he wanted to devote his full attention to it and other issues such as health care, Social Security and immigration reform.

"I want to keep my focus on helping find a responsible way out of this tragedy and not divert my energy, my efforts and my judgment with competing political considerations."

America "now reaches for a national consensus of purpose," Hagel said.

The nation's greatness is not "lost to the 20th century," said the senator. "I intend to be part of America's story."

Hagel, who is among Republicans most critical of the United States' handling of the Iraq war, said, "finding solutions ... will not wait until the next election."

He said "there will still be political options open to me at a later date."

In January, Hagel told CNN that he would make a decision about a presidential run "soon." He plans to appear this week at a forum for presidential hopefuls sponsored by the International Association of Firefighters, according to the union.

Hagel, 60, was a decorated infantry sergeant during the Vietnam War. He supported the 2002 congressional resolution that authorized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq the following year, but he has become an increasingly vocal critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war.

"I am not an anti-war candidate," Hagel said Monday. "I have never been anti-war."

Hagel said it's most important when a president considers use of force that it be used as a last resort and that it be a "wise and smart" use of force.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday showed most Americans, 79 percent of those surveyed, are unsure about Hagel. Only 10 percent said they had a favorable view of the senator.

The poll, conducted from March 9 to 11, surveyed 1,027 adult Americans, including 398 registered voters who describe themselves as Republicans or as Independents who lean Republican.

Hagel cited a Gallup poll that appeared last week indicating job approval ratings for members of the Senate and the House are, on average, in the 20s.

"What that tells you is America has lost confidence in the political leadership of this country," he said. "We're not solving the problems; we're not addressing the big issues and we are captive to ideology in both parties."

Long campaign may 'damage' system

Hagel expressed dismay over the campaign's early start. "We're about a year away from presidential primaries, and already our airwaves, our newspapers, everything, every talk show is consumed with presidential candidates and presidential politics.

"I don't know how long we can sustain this or how long the American people will find that entertaining," he said. "I do fear that we're doing some damage to our system."

Hagel said the possibility of thrusting his family further into the glare of the political stage has given him pause.

"If it was just straight politics, that actually would be an easy decision, but when you make a decision to run for office, as some in this room know, you better have it thought out carefully at least with your family," Hagel said.

"A sophomore and eighth-grader, like my children are, their lives would be consumed with it. My wife's life would be consumed with it."

Hagel had harsh words for the Republican Party. "I think we have come loose of our moorings," he said.

Hagel said the party he first voted for in 1968, when he reached legal voting age, was one of fiscal responsibility, strong national defense, personal responsibility, international engagement and free trade. "I don't see that same party today," he said.

Hagel said he discussed his decision on a conference call with 100 supporters moments before he made his public announcement, but their input did not affect his decision.

"I sat at my kitchen table in McLean, Virginia, two weeks ago and wrote it on a piece of yellow paper," he said.

Hagel said he would continue to raise money for Republican candidates and for his own possible re-election.

"Whatever money I would raise and put in my Hagel re-election-for-the-Senate campaign could be transferred to a presidential campaign," he said.

'Dangerous ... blunder'

Hagel gained notice in January when he lobbed a sharply critical salvo against President Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq. He called it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." (Read about Hagel's strongly worded barb)

Hagel also joined six other Republicans in February to back a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop increase. The measure failed on a procedural vote. (Read how GOP blocked Senate debate on Iraq resolution)

"I believed what the administration said, that war would be a last resort," Hagel told Esquire magazine in a newly published interview. "And the second thing is, at a critical time like this, the president needs a strong hand, and to some extent, you've got to trust him, until he lies or screws up or something."

The magazine also quotes Hagel as saying that Bush appears to believe he's no longer accountable, "which isn't totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment. I don't know. It depends how this goes."

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, said Monday he will delay making a decision about running for president.

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