President Bush's nominee to replace outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with senators Friday ahead of his confirmation hearings next month.

Former Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates had his first meetings with senators since President Bush nominated him on Nov. 8.

He met with Republican and Democratic leaders, including outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, who announced that confirmation hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee would begin Dec. 5.

He said, "This is a major priority for the United States Senate, for our government, and I look forward to a speedy confirmation."

President Bush nominated Gates the day after the Nov. 7 midterm elections handed Democrats control of the next Congress, which will convene in January.

Democratic gains in the House and Senate were fueled in large part by voter anger over the Iraq war.

At the time his nomination was announced, Gates was serving as a member of an independent panel established by Congress to assess a future course in Iraq.

Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also met with Gates Friday but offered little comment.

However, in comments last week to reporters, he said that Iraq would be a key issue in the confirmation hearings.

"As to a specific change in strategy, I would think that would not be forthcoming," he said.

"But generally, his concept of Iraq as an integral nation in the world today as we see it, and the region, the consequences were Iraq to fall into the hands of terrorism, and become the source of money and oil fields to fund terrorism and training grounds -- I am certain that he will be fully prepared to answer those questions," Warner continued.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is to succeed Warner as committee chairman next year, is to meet with Gates next week.

Levin, who has criticized Rumsfeld's positive assessments of Iraq as unrealistic, says he hopes the next defense secretary is more objective.

He said, "For me the important thing with Mr. Gates is whether or not he is independent, whether or not he will speak truth to power."

The Senate is expected to confirm Gates before the end of the year.