* Former senator's comments on Middle East, gay rights at issue
* Two key senators voice confidence in Hagel
* While opponents make noise, many groups remain on sidelines
By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel appears increasingly likely to be confirmed as U.S. defense secretary, thanks to support from two key senators and the lack of an overt campaign against him by mainstream pro-Israel groups.
Hagel, whose comments on Israel, Iran and gay rights have sparked opposition to his candidacy, on Tuesday won the backing of Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, who had been conspicuously on the fence. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, also weighed in with support.
Schumer's support was seen as pivotal given his record as a strong supporter of Israel. Both he and Boxer are Jewish.
Neoconservative activists have vociferously attacked Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, over past statements questioning the wisdom of using military force to stop Iran's nuclear program and complaining about what he called the intimidating influence of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington.
Larger, more mainstream organizations have not mounted a concerted public effort to derail Hagel's nomination to replace Leon Panetta as President Barack Obama's Pentagon chief.
Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, said his group was "in the concerned camp, not the opposition camp" and would decide whether to oppose or support the nomination depending upon what emerges during the Senate confirmation process.
That process is likely to be messy. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings, issued a tweet calling him "a divisive and disastrous nominee."
But those views are unlikely to gain more traction, aides say, unless Hagel mishandles his confirmation hearing or additional controversial statements from the past emerge.
"I've had a few conversations with Republicans on the Hill who admittedly don't like Hagel for his 'malleability,'" said one well-connected former Republican congressional and Bush administration aide.
Hagel will get "raked over the coals" for some of his statements on Israel and Iran and grilled on his willingness to send troops into battle, the aide said. "But in the end he will be confirmed," the former official said.
Democratic officials offered a similar assessment.
One close to the Armed Services Committee said, "There is no groundswell on Capitol Hill" against Hagel. "Have I seen anything that looks truly disqualifying? No."
Hagel will garner votes from all 53 Senate Democrats and between 10 and 15 Republicans, predicted one observer who has been counting votes. Should Hagel's nomination come to a vote in the full Senate, he would need a simple majority of its 100 members to win confirmation.
One of the principal groups lobbying against Hagel is the Emergency Committee for Israel, fronted by two prominent conservative figures, Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer. Hagel broke with conservative Republican foreign policy thinking and became a critic of President George W. Bush's policies, particularly his handling of the Iraq war.
In mid-December, before it became clear that Hagel was Obama's favorite for the defense post, the group produced a 30-second TV spot aired on Washington cable systems that criticized Hagel's views on Iran.
The group paid for a full-page ad that ran on Tuesday in The New York Times, calling Hagel an "anti-Israel nominee" and pointing readers to its anti-Hagel website, www.chuckhagel.com.
Representatives of the group, including Michael Goldfarb, who is listed as the committee's treasurer, did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages over several days requesting comment on the group and its funding.
Other broadsides against Hagel have come from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group that launched a newspaper ad campaign attacking Hagel's record on gay rights issues. In the 1990s, Hagel disparaged a nominee for U.S. ambassador as "openly, aggressively gay," remarks he has since apologized for.
But along with the American Jewish Committee, two other major pro-Israel groups say that, for now, they are not directly opposing Hagel's nomination.
Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely regarded as the most powerful pro-Israel political group in Washington, said by email, "AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations."
When rumors about a possible Hagel nomination first surfaced last month, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which campaigns against anti-Semitism and supports Israel, was quoted as describing the 2006 Hagel comment about the "Jewish lobby" as "pretty disturbing language which ... borders onto conspiratorial."
On Friday, Foxman told Reuters that these and other issues related to Hagel, including his views on Iran, still concern him and need explanation. But he said he had never said that he or the ADL were going to fight the nomination. "He can assuage us, convince us ... and we move on."
Well-financed and media-savvy lobbyists close to the White House and Obama's re-election campaign have launched their own campaign to support Hagel's confirmation and neutralize opposition forces.
Before Hagel was nominated, the Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm headed by the brother of John Podesta, the head of Obama's first-term transition team, helped a coterie of former top government officials who call themselves the Bipartisan Group get a wider audience for a letter urging Obama to choose him.
A spokesman for Bill Benter, a major donor to liberal causes whose website touts his prowess as a professional gambler, confirmed Benter was helping to pay for advertising promoting the Bipartisan Group's message.