Gates appears headed for quick confirmation by Senate as next Pentagon chief

With a frankness that won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike, Robert Gates, the former CIA director, maneuvered through five hours of nonconfrontational Senate questioning and appeared headed for certain confirmation to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

He raised some eyebrows by stating bluntly that the United States is not winning in Iraq, contradicting President George w. Bush, who said at an Oct. 25 news conference, "Absolutely, we're winning." But Gates later stressed that the U.S. also is not losing, and that the setbacks have been more political than military.

After the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 24-0 on Tuesday to recommend Gates be confirmed, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, announced that floor debate on the nomination would begin Wednesday.

Frist congratulated Gates on his "exemplary performance", and other lawmakers offered strong praise.

"I supported his nomination today to be secretary of defense because he assured the committee in today's hearings that he would be an independent thinker and give candid and frank advice to the president about a way forward in Iraq," said Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, who voted against Gates in 1991 when he became CIA chief.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn said he voted for Gates because he is convinced he will help correct the problems in Iraq.

"I am confident that Dr. Gates fully understands the need for victory in Iraq," Cornyn said after the committee's vote. "Failure in Iraq would lead to increased terrorist activity by al-Qaida and regional instability as Iran tries to extend its sphere of influence."

Gates, 63, told the committee he is confident that Bush would listen to his ideas about forging a new war strategy. He also pledged to give "most serious consideration" to the view of senior military officers, a comment that appeared directed at those among Rumsfeld's critics who accused him of bullying the generals and denigrating or ignoring their advice. That is a charge that Rumsfeld strongly denies.

Gates promised to begin his tenure with an open mind.

"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he said, without committing to any specific new course of action. He said he would consult first with commanders and others.

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