PHIILADELPHIA — At Chuck Hagel's last Republican National Convention, he was a candidate trying to get noticed. Now, the U.S. senator from Nebraska is greeted by people he has never met.

Hagel was widely reported as a possible running mate for Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the GOP presidential ticket before Bush chose Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense and Wyoming congressman.

At the convention, Hagel had the prime-time job of introducing Bush's top rival in the presidential race, Arizona Sen. John McCain, before his speech Tuesday.

Both Hagel and McCain are Vietnam veterans, and McCain, a Navy pilot, spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp after he was shot down.

Supporters of McCain's campaign ”saw character. They saw courage. And they saw strength,” Hagel said. ”A man who fights passionately for what he believes. A man who says it straight.”

McCain's jailers ”broke his body, but they could not break his spirit,” Hagel said. ”They could not break his faith … That same faith later inspired millions of Americans to believe in things bigger and more important than their own self-interest.”

Nebraska's delegates — there are 30, plus a like number of alternates — also were getting their time in the limelight Tuesday.

It was their turn to participate in the convention's ”rolling roll call,” in which the job of giving the nomination to Bush is being spread over the convention's four nights. Delegates from 10 states cast their ballots Monday.

Many delegates wore Cornhusker-red polo shirts, featuring a prominent white ”N” logo, for Tuesday's session.

Hagel and Gov. Mike Johanns shared the job of announcing Nebraska's vote count. Johanns lauded the congressional candidacy of former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, while poking some fun at President Clinton.

”We have the distinction of being the only state in the union, I repeat the ONLY state in the union, never visited by Bill Clinton since he's been president,” Johanns said as delegates laughed and cheered.

Hagel referred to Dick Cheney's Nebraska roots — he was born in Lincoln — and the Senate candidacy of Attorney General Don Stenberg, who is facing former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson.

This week's convention marks another step in the political ascension of Hagel, who gained national attention as a spokesman for McCain when the Arizonan's presidential campaign gained early momentum.

Republicans' approach to the convention has been similar to the strategy Hagel advocated for GOP political campaigns two years ago, when he appealed for a more positive message and less political nastiness.

He's in demand for campaign appearances in other states. He was a featured speaker at last month's Tennessee state GOP convention, and has campaigned for Senate colleagues Rod Grams of Minnesota and Spencer Abraham of Michigan.

His McCain activism ”did allow me to play on a national stage, and gives me maybe even a little more of a forum to help Gov. Bush and Cheney, and also maybe provide a little more leadership in the Senate,” Hagel said Tuesday.

His top campaign goal, Hagel said, is to help elect Stenberg to the Senate. Stenberg and Hagel clashed four years ago, when Hagel beat him in the GOP Senate primary. Hagel then beat Nelson in the general election.

Hagel's newfound national recognition does not change the legislative subjects he intends to focus on, he said Tuesday. He is known for his advocacy of free trade and campaign finance reform, and has taken an aggressive foreign policy role.

”Any time you are involved with a presidential campaign with a candidate like John McCain, that gives you some new awareness,” Hagel said. ”Hopefully, we'll translate that into maybe a little more effectiveness.

”I would say this — in the Senate, like any institution, you are judged on your merits,” he continued. ”It doesn't hurt to have a little more national stature.”

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