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Press the Flesh

New York, New York--A presidential candidacy begins here, in a grim Sheraton Hotel reception room with a faded carpet below, harsh fluorescent lights above, and subtext all around. It's 8:30 a.m., and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is standing at a lectern before the Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention, pretending not to be doing what he's doing. Hagel, a second-term senator and former telecom executive, is looking sharp in a crisp blue suit as he ruminates on national politics for the 100 or so assembled delegates. This is ostensibly a casual drop-by, a chance to say hello to some fellow Republicans--and, indeed, to an outside observer that's just how it might appear. But, from the throng of fascinated reporters bunched in the back of the room, it's clear there's something more going on.

A couple of weeks ago, Hagel let slip to a Nebraska reporter that he was mulling a run for the White House in 2008. It was a subtle suggestion, couched as just one of many future options (leaving politics, running for reelection). But it was also a clever one: a well-timed signal to the thousands of reporters here in New York, who are desperate for dramatic subplots to a hyperscripted convention, that Hagel would offer a worthy diversion.

Some White House aspirants have it easy. If you're Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, a prime-time convention speech is all it takes to vault you to the top of everyone's list of future White House contenders. But, for a second-tier Republican like Hagel who doesn't have built-in star power, the task is harder. You need to broadcast your intentions clearly enough that people understand your interest in the presidency. But the unwritten rules of political conduct demand a certain coyness. In New York this week, Hagel was a case study in the bizarre ritual of becoming a "mentioned" presidential candidate.

And so here is Hagel speaking to the Iowans, whose caucuses will be the first real test of the 2008 nomination fight. "Being the shameless politician that I am," he says, Hagel mentions that he has several relatives in Iowa and extols the virtues of ethanol. He issues platitudinous calls for entitlement reform and more civility in politics, and engages in such banal pol-speak as "that's dynamic, that's the world, that's change." And he makes what has become his signature argument back on Capitol Hill these days: that America needs to conduct a more multilateral foreign policy. "We will not win any war against the terrorists--the radical fundamentalists--alone," Hagel explains to the crowd.

After speaking for a few minutes, Hagel bolts from the room without bothering to work the crowd. A pack of reporters chases him--some literally run down the hall after him, holding their tape recorders in the air. Another ritual unfolds as Hagel walks for a few feet, feigning disinterest in all the attention, then comes to a halt and takes ten minutes of questions. He demurs when asked about his presidential intentions, insisting he's focused on getting George W. Bush reelected. But then he lets slip that "I've been to New Hampshire five times in the past four years." By the time his aides hustle him off, Hagel has spent more time talking with reporters than schmoozing Iowa delegates. And that, of course, is the point. When it comes to drumming up buzz for your presidential dreams at a party convention, it's not actual primary voters you need to impress--it's the press. Hagel's New York schedule included sit-downs with editors from The Washington Post, Newsweek, and National Review. And by midweek, his media-first strategy was yielding demonstrable benefits: Hagel was written up in several stories about 2008 contenders, from The New York Times to the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to, well, The New Republic.

Back among the Iowa delegation, however, there was far less excitement with Hagel's performance. After his speech, I caught up with Leon Mosley, the co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. He is an unlikely character for the role of Midwestern Republican official: a hulking black man of at least six-foot-three with several metal teeth and a white cowboy hat. (Imagine an African American version of the James Bond villain Jaws.) While Hagel's call for multilateralism played well in the national media--particularly because it is a challenge to Bush administration orthodoxy--it hardly impressed the formidable Mosley. "Let me tell you something," he explains to me. "I don't get on my knees and beg for help. When it comes to [terrorists] killing our people, I don't need no help." Did Mosley have a higher opinion of Hagel's positions on so-called values issues? "Values?" he snaps. "I don't know anything about his values." But at this point, as far as Hagel is concerned, he doesn't have to. Mosley and the rest of the Iowa delegates were simply scenery in a piece of political theater played almost entirely for the benefit of journalists.

Other future White House aspirants put a little more effort into wooing influential delegates. George Pataki and Mitt Romney gave long and well-crafted speeches to the New Hampshire and Iowa delegations, respectively. In a speech to the Granite Staters, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who usually derides the liberal Northeast, makes multiple mentions of the fact that he spent more than a decade living in Boston as a medical resident; Frist also conspicuously sported a lapel pin that read, New Hampshire: A Proven Primary Tradition.

Based on the concerns of Iowa's delegates, at least, all of these candidates might do well to sport wwjd bracelets. After Hagel spoke, Mosley took the lectern to remind his delegates "what's paramount in our life: God," a line that drew roaring applause. He added that GOP stands for "God's Official Party." And, when Romney took questions from the Iowans, the first thing he was asked was whether he would be able to pass a gay-marriage ban in Massachusetts. The second delegate he called on had no question: He just wanted to thank Romney "for your stand on the marriage amendment."

Hagel, in contrast, never even bothered with such back-and-forths. Later the same day, it's a similar scene--a hotel ballroom filled with delegates, this time from the all-important primary state of New Hampshire. New Hampshire's GOP delegation is smaller than Iowa's, so now the ratio of reporters to delegates in the room approaches one-to-one. And, this time, the delegates barely seem interested as Hagel reprises his speech from the morning. His brief remarks are almost drowned out by conversation from the back of the room. Hagel finishes after less than ten minutes and steps immediately into another throng of reporters. Why are you here? a scribe asks. Are you running for president? "I know there's always indications anytime you drive through or set foot in Iowa or New Hampshire," Hagel explains. But at the moment, he says, he has no plans. Yet, when someone suggests that senators like John Kerry--and Hagel himself--historically have trouble winning the presidency, Hagel is ready with a convenient response about how today's dangerous world favors members of Congress steeped in foreign policy. After the reporters put away their notebooks, Hagel shakes one or two hands, and then he's gone. Half the delegates in the room seem not to have heard a thing he said. But it doesn't matter. His work here is done.