Who is Chuck Hagel, again?

The SecDef sweepstakes are heating up and the latest word from administration officials -- none of whom speak on record of course -- is that President Obama is close to making his choice to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

On the “short-list” for real now is Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Vietnam veteran and military advocate, and head of the Atlantic Council, a NATO-focused think tank.

Hagel has long enjoyed a reputation for being a level-headed, smart mind on foreign affairs and national security issues, which means that he’s been a darling of the Democratic caucus and a thorn in the side of conservative Republicans. This year he told The Cable the Republican party had veered too far right.

In 2007, Hagel announced he would not run to keep his Senate seat, after a long spell of criticizing the Bush adminsiration and Republican Party over the Iraq war. Hagel was so widely regarded the time that headlines called it a “conditional retirement,” believing Washington had not heard the last of him. It also immediately fueled speculation of a presidential run. He passed on that effort, but in 2008 Hagel’s name was kept afloat as Obama’s possible running mate.

Instead, Hagel became chairman of the Atlantic Council, where his duties have kept him front and center with the likes of Bono and Bill Clinton and other global dignitaries and military leaders. The group’s annual awards dinner is a who’s who of military and international affairs glitterati.

He’s not kept completely out of politics, accepting a slot shortly after Obama’s inauguration on the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board and as cochairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. (The Democratic president, that is.)

One hiccup for Hagel’s bid: Obama’s first defense secretary was a Republican, Robert Gates. After less than two years under Panetta, does the White House worry about the apparently very thin bench of Democratic candidates to head the military while the Afghanistan war continues to rage? Inside the Pentagon, Hagel's name is drawing more skeptical smirks than nods of approval. Other than Hagel, the top names are now Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), whom most feel wants the Secretary of State job shouldUnited Nations Amb. Susan Rice’s candidacy fail and two “in the building” candidates little known to the public and creating little inspiration at Washington water coolers: Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Michelle Flournoy, the former Pentagon policy chief.

Hagel, once a loud independent voice on Capitol Hill, has kept relatively quiet since his retirement. His return to politics via the River Entrance surely would shake some foundations in this town, if theman-in-the-middle is tossed between Democrats and Republicans, who when it comes to defense spending, ending the war in Afghanistan, closing Guantanamo or interjecting in the Middle East, appear as entrenched as ever.