Posted: April 26, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Forget the "Straight Talk Express" from John McCain's presidential campaign. U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel blew into Delaware on Monday evening with something like the "Hard Truth Cannonball."

Hagel shook up his fellow Republicans by warning that a Category 5 political season was upon them and they had better prepare, or else the voters would do to them what Katrina did to New Orleans.

"We may be faced with one of those elections where a lot of people go down," he said.

Elected to the Senate from Nebraska in 1996, Hagel officially was here to speak at a private fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican ex-governor who has made a career out of rising above the political floodwaters and clearly does not intend to be swamped this time, either.

Hagel also is part of the vast gene pool of candidates looking at the 2008 presidential race, and Delaware is one of a handful of early states voting right after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Helping Castle also meant helping himself, and it seemed to work out beautifully for both of them.

By the end of the two-hour reception, Castle had added $30,000 or $40,000 to his campaign treasury, already a robust $1.2 million and counting. It is practically an embarrassment of riches compared to Dennis Spivack, his Democratic opponent, whose sad-sack account is nearly bare after he loaned himself $90,000 and spent it.

Hagel got what he came for, too. "I turned to the person standing next to me and said, Chuck Hagel for president!" said Jan Jessup, a marketing consultant from Wilmington.

The fund-raiser was held on the stone patio of a house in Westover Hills, the manicured duchy on the outskirts of Wilmington. The crowd of about 150 people was particularly flush with prospering bankers -- not surprising with Castle and Hagel both sitting on banking committees. Hagel even wore a gold tie.

The Republicans mustered past members of Congress to add luster to the event. Former Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont and Thomas B. Evans Jr. were there, but not Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr. because he was in Rehoboth Beach for a banquet honoring former Republican Lt. Gov. Eugene D. Bookhammer.

The crowd also included the Republicans' recruiting class of statewide candidates for 2006 -- Jan C. Ting, running for Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper's seat, and Ferris W. Wharton, squaring off with Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III for attorney general.

"Needless to say," Castle told his contributors, "all of you will be hearing from each of them."

Castle noted how grateful he was for the pleasant weather. After a storm in the morning, it was Hagel who brought the thunder.

Hagel, like Castle, is known for his independent streak, forged by his experiences as a decorated Vietnam veteran and an entrepreneur who made millions by risking all he had to start a cell phone company. Now 59, he did not get into politics until 10 years ago when he ran audaciously for the U.S. Senate against a sitting Nebraska governor and won an election he was supposed to lose.

He thinks Iran was always a worse problem than Iraq. He believes the country is crying for a "Manhattan Project" on energy. He prefers a foreign policy that operates not so much unilaterally as in concert with allies. This was no George Bush clone speaking.

Hagel backed McCain for president in 2000, but 2008 could be different.

He found his way to Delaware as others already have in the Republican field, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Virginia Sen. George Allen. New York Gov. George Pataki will be in this weekend for the Republican state convention, and there was talk at the fund-raiser that McCain and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist could be here soon, too.

Hagel has a certain familiarity with Delaware. He came in as a speaker for a Biden Seminar, one of the periodic sessions that Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. holds for his supporters and often features Republicans. Some Delaware friends once held a fund-raiser for Hagel here, and he says he used to visit the beaches in the 1970s -- not that he is talking about what he did then.

When Hagel got down to politics, the crowd was riveted. He explained the threat to the Republican Party in numbers that everyone could understand -- a 32 percent approval rating for Bush that is "dangerously low" and $4-a-gallon gasoline prices that he suspects are on the way.

Republican candidates will be in the crosshairs in 2006 because the party has been in charge of the Congress for 12 years and the White House for six years, and it ought not to count on keeping the presidency in 2008 just because Hillary Rodham Clinton turns off so many people, he said.

"This election is going to be, I think, one of the most defining in modern times. It frames the presidential election for 2008," Hagel said. "We need to reflect a little on our leadership. That analysis is going to be forced on us. That's the way the world works. That's the way politics works."

He predicted these early years of the 21st Century would be as transformational as the time after World War II, but he saw opportunity if the party could produce "clear-headed leadership, very solid leadership."

Otherwise, he said the 2006 election could be 1974 all over again, the Watergate election when Republicans lost in droves, sometimes simply because of a picture showing them with Richard Nixon.

Pete du Pont, who nervously survived the Watergate election to win his third House term, agreed that 2006 had the same feel to it as 1974. "Absolutely it does. I think it's worse than '74, unless the Republican Party gets off its butt," he said.

Hagel's message left Ferris Wharton happy to be hunkered down in Delaware while the federal winds blew overhead. "I'm running for attorney general, you know."