In the same way that the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008 is shaping up to be Hillary vs the non-Hillary, centering on differences over the war in Iraq, the race on the Republican side looks like it could turn out to be McCain vs the non-McCain, also centering on differences over the war.
And the man looking more and more like the non-McCain is Chuck Hagel.
The two decorated war heroes are longtime friends. But their political paths seem to be diverging. Whereas McCain, longtime wearer of the mantle of party maverick, is aggressively staking out the sweet spot of the GOP base -- supporting President Bush on Iraq and tax cuts (yes, the ones he originally voted against), and making nice with Jerry Falwell -- Hagel is courageously and passionately speaking out against the White House's disastrous foreign policies.
Indeed, Hagel's withering criticisms of the president's handling of Iraq have been far bolder than anything most Democrats have been willing to say.
He recently called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, described Iraq as "a hopeless, winless situation", and asked: "Are we going to put our troops in the middle of a civil war? This will be a slaughter of immense proportions."
He has also said that Iraq is "an absolute replay of Vietnam" (he should know, having received 2 Purple Hearts for his service there) and that "Iraq is not going to turn out the way we were promised it was. And that's a fact."
Like Jack Murtha, another Vietnam vet, Hagel originally voted for the war but turned against it after seeing how poorly it was being handled -- and becoming disgusted with the Bush administration's sugar-coating of the deteriorating situation.
He broke ranks back in June 2005, appalled by Dick Cheney's claim that the insurgency was in its "last throes": "Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."
And he's kept up the drumbeat. "The Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, want the United States out of Iraq," he said in June 2006. "They see us as oppressors, rather than liberators. That's just a fact of life."
These sentiments have put him on the side of the majority of Americans, but also in the position of taking on his party's power structure -- something he's shown a willingness to do. "When I think of issues like Iraq," he has said, "of how we went into it -- no planning, no preparation, no sense of consequences, of where were going, how we were going to get out, went in without enough men, no exit strategy, those kinds of things -- I'll speak out. I'll go against my party."
He's also been critical of the GOP's use of "catchy slogans" to avoid having a serious debate on Iraq. He said that using buzzwords like cut-and-run "debase the seriousness of war."
And he decried the White House's propensity for labeling as unpatriotic anyone who disagrees with its Iraq policies. "The Bush administration," he said in November 2005, "must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them... To question your government is not unpatriotic -- to not question your government is unpatriotic."
Hagel has also taken an outspoken stance on the crisis in Lebanon, expressing support for Israel but not for the tactics it's chosen to use. "The war against Hezbollah and Hamas will not be won on the battlefield," he said recently. He predicted that "extended military action will tear apart Lebanon, destroy its economy and infrastructure, create a humanitarian disaster, further weaken Lebanon's fragile democratic government, strengthen popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepen hatred of Israel across the Middle East."
It's almost as if McCain has abandoned the Straight Talk Express on the side of the road and Hagel has hopped into the driver's seat.
Will his party, looking for a way out of the Iraq quagmire, climb on board?