But Hagel's critics -- and there were many -- didn't seem to land any blows devastating enough to throw his confirmation off track. Most rehashed issues that polls show feel old to many Americans, like the Iraq surge and nuclear disarmament -- though even on those the former Nebraska senator sometimes stumbled in his response.
Here are POLITICO's five takeaways from the Senate Armed Services Committee's daylong grilling of Hagel:
Not quite ready for prime time
Given the weeks of acrimonious back-and-forth over his nomination as secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel couldn't -- or shouldn't -- have been taken by surprise by the fusillade of questions he faced Thursday about Israel, Iran and other national security issues.
Yet, again and again, Hagel found himself on his heels, offering awkward retractions of his prior statements and repeatedly using garbled phrases that underscored pre-existing doubts about his positions. He seemed like a politician more suited for the revise-and-extend tradition of the Senate than for the YouTube age.
"I support the president's strong position on containment" of Iran, Hagel said early in the session, appearing to endorse a policy President Barack Obama has rejected in favor of declaring that the U.S. will not tolerate Iran getting nuclear weapons.
A short time later, Hagel said he'd been handed a note and wanted to correct his answer. "If I said that, I meant to say that obviously -- his position on containment -- we don't have a position on containment."
Sensing that even Hagel's clarification fell short of fully clarifying the point, Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) jumped in.
"Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment -- which is we do not favor containment," Levin noted.
Hagel made another unforced error while discussing his opposition in 2007 to a Senate resolution calling for the U.S. to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. While explaining that he was concerned that the vote could have been a green light to war with Iran, he referred to the regime there as "the elected, legitimate government."
This time, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) rode to Hagel's rescue, asking him later in the hearing if he wanted to explain what he meant.
"What I meant to say -- should have said -- it's recognizable," Hagel said. "It's been recognized, is recognized at the United Nations. Most of our allies have embassies there. That's what I should have said, and ... thank you."
As Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) pressed Hagel about remarks he made during the 2006 fighting between Israel and Lebanon, Hagel again mangled his words. "I've never voted against anything but Israel's interests," he declared.
At times, despite his dozen years in the Senate, Hagel seemed bewildered with the way his quotes were being picked apart. "I've had more attention paid to my words in the last eight weeks than I ever thought possible," he said.
McCain and Hagel still scuffling
Some of the policy ground on which GOP senators battled with Hagel seemed unlikely to draw much criticism of the former senator from the general public. A lot of it also seemed to focus on issues the public passed judgment on or lost interest in years ago.
Sen. John McCain and Hagel -- two decorated Vietnam veterans -- produced the hearing's most memorable exchange when the Arizona Republican pushed the nominee to admit that he was wrong when he blasted the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq as "the greatest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War" and suggested it was becoming a "quagmire."
"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said.
"The committee deserves your judgment," McCain insisted, calling for a "direct answer."
"I'm not going to give you a yes or no answer," Hagel replied.
"I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain declared.
While Hagel suggested at the outset that he wouldn't answer, he eventually said that one shouldn't consider the troop surge separate from other strategies pursued at the same time. And, Hagel said, one still had to balance the U.S. death toll against the gains made.
"There was more to it than just flooding the zone," Hagel said. "We lost almost 1,200 dead Americans during that surge, and thousands of wounded. Now, was it required? Was it necessary?...I'm not that sure. I'm not that certain it was required."
While the surge is widely regarded as a military success, Hagel's view that prolonging the U.S. presence in Iraq might have been unnecessary seems likely to resonate with Americans who polls show have long grown tired of that war.
Hagel ran from parts of his record on nukes
Republicans also pressed Hagel repeatedly about his work with Global Zero, an international organization which seeks to do away with nuclear weapons. GOP senators suggested Hagel couldn't be trusted to preserve and maintain the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal -- an issue that was at the forefront of American politics in the 1980s but doesn't preoccupy many Americans these days.
Hagel's support for the zero nuclear weapons goal is hardly out of the mainstream. The concept has been endorsed by foreign policy luminaries like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Sam Nunn. And, as many participants in Thursday's hearing pointed out, by President Ronald Reagan as well.
Still, some of Hagel's explanations about his views on the nuclear issues seemed downright implausible. Just last year, he signed a report which said repeatedly that the U.S. should consider acting unilaterally to make dramatic reductions in its nuclear arsenal.
"These steps could be taken with Russia in unison ... negotiated in another round of bilateral arms reduction talks, or implemented unilaterally," the report said.
Hagel insisted that, the report's words notwithstanding, he never held such a view. "It didn't propose or call for anything," he claimed. "Bilateral not unilateral ... nothing was ever suggested on a unilateral basis to take down our arsenal."
Hagel confirmed GOP's fears
If Republicans and others are worried that Hagel will lean against U.S. intervention abroad, Thursday's hearing provided ample support for that notion. He acknowledged not just that he opposed President George W. Bush's surge in Iraq but that he opposed Obama's decision to send troops to Afghanistan, as well.
"That was my personal opinion, yes," he told McCain in a less-animated portion of their exchange.
Hagel later described how his service in Vietnam affected him. "In 1968, we sent over 16,000 dead Americans home ... That's unfathomable in the world we live in today," he said. "I saw that from the bottom."
"I'm not shaped, framed, molded, consumed by that experience. Of course not. But it's part of me," he said.
Hagel also put a gentle shot across the bow of those who are eager to use U.S. military force abroad but haven't been to war themselves.
"It's easier, if you don't have a connection to some of this, to see these things a little differently," the former senator said. "I saw the consequences and the suffering and horror of war."
Republicans didn't quite deliver either
The GOP came into Thursday's hearing building very high expectations for their case against Hagel.
Conservative media promised a furious filleting of Hagel. "Send us Hagel, and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite," a top Republican Senate aide told The Weekly Standard in December.
Republicans clearly demonstrated that Hagel was a thorn in the side of pro-Israel groups. But evidence that he has an animus toward Israel was thin and toward Jews basically nonexistent.
At one point, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said his colleagues were seeking to impose "guilt by conversation."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) drew a lot of attention by playing video of an Al-Jazeera interview with Hagel in which a caller with a heavy accent made a rambling statement that at one point suggested Israel had committed war crimes.
Hagel seemed to agree with the caller's general point, but it wasn't clear he heard or understood the reference to Israel. Cruz's tactic drew a negative response from some observers, who suggested it was unfair to blame TV show guests for random, often offensive statements by those who happen to call in.
Cruz later tried a similar tack, trying to link Hagel to Chas Freeman, a longtime intelligence official Obama selected to head a national intelligence panel in 2009 but dropped after pro-Israel groups charged that Freeman's record showed a hostility to Israel.
Cruz asked Hagel if he took an overseas trip with Freeman. Hagel said he'd never done so. Later, the questioning got even further afield, as Cruz asked Hagel to read a speech Freeman gave and say whether he agreed with the statements in it. So by the hearing's end, Hagel was not being questioned about his long list of controversial statements but by someone else's remarks in a speech he said he'd not attended or read.
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