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* Hagel faced rocky Senate confirmation hearing last week
* "Give the guy a break," Senate majority leader says
* Earliest committee vote on Hagel would be this Thursday (Adds background)
WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Senate Democratic leader and the top U.S. military officer rallied behind Chuck Hagel on Sunday after President Barack Obama's choice for Pentagon chief endured a rocky confirmation hearing, with Panetta faulting critics for wielding their "political knives."
"This was eight hours," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, referring to Thursday's confirmation hearing in which Hagel faced tough questions from Republicans on his past statements on Israel, Iran and U.S. nuclear strategy.
"Give the guy a break. I thought he did pretty good," Reid told the ABC program "This Week."
Hagel, if confirmed, would take over at the Pentagon with automatic defense spending cuts due to kick in on March 1 and with U.S. officials debating how many - if any - troops should remain in Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw in 2014.
Hagel's nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle - approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee - on a straight party-line vote. The earliest that vote could come is Thursday.
Republicans hammered Hagel when he appeared before the committee, with some of the fiercest questioning coming from lawmakers who had served alongside him during his two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska.
"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta told the NBC program "Meet the Press."
"What disappointed me is that ... they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?" Panetta, preparing to step down as U.S. defense chief, added.
"What about the war ... in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering (automatic budget cuts) - what impact it's going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber-attacks?" Panetta said.
"All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly ... we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues," he added.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered positive words about Hagel, who if confirmed would become Dempsey's boss.
"In my contacts with the senator, Senator Hagel, in his preparations, I found him to be very thoughtful and very well prepared and very interested. And so if he's confirmed, I'm sure that we'll establish a very close working relationship," Dempsey told CNN's "State of the Union" during a joint appearance with Panetta.
Critics said Hagel did not perform well at times during the hearing, speaking hesitantly, seeming tired and often unprepared for some of the sharpest queries.
Republicans sought to portray Hagel as outside mainstream security thinking. Hagel's fellow Republican and Vietnam War veteran Senator John McCain aggressively questioned him, interrupting him and talking over him at times.
The White House is standing by Hagel. None of the Senate's Democrats have publicly abandoned him, meaning minority Republicans would have to resort to procedural tactics if they want to try to block his confirmation.
Panetta did not give a direct answer when asked on CNN whether Hagel seemed well prepared during the hearing.
"I know Chuck Hagel. And I think that he's got good experience with regards to public service. He understands the issues of the Defense Department. I think he'll be a great secretary of defense," Panetta said.
"These hearings are tough - and especially when everybody's targeting you."
Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who would be the first former enlisted man to lead the Defense Department.
Reid played down any mistakes Hagel may have made during the hearing. "If you interviewed me for eight hours like they interviewed him in the Senate ... you and I would both flub up a little bit," he told his interviewer on ABC.
"So, Chuck Hagel is a fine man. He was a good senator. I served with him. He's a Republican. That should be a plus. ... And I think he will be an outstanding, terrific secretary of defense," Reid added. (Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Mohammad Zargham)