At a Senate confirmation hearing that was long on praise for Gates and short on criticism, the man President Bush picked to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld said he is open to new ideas about altering the U.S. course in Iraq. He said the war would be his highest priority if confirmed as expected.
A vote by the full Senate could come Wednesday or at least by the end of the week.
In a closed-door meeting following five hours of open testimony, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 21-0 to recommend approval of Gates' nomination, said panel chairman John Warner, R-Va.
If confirmed, Gates said he planned to visit U.S. commanders and troops in Iraq "quite soon."
Gates, 63, said he believes Mr. Bush wants to see Iraq improve to the point where it can govern and defend itself and that may require a new approach. "What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said.
"In my view, all options are on the table in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he said. He did not commit to any specific new course, saying he would consult first with commanders and others.
Asked directly by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir." He later said he believes the United States is neither winning nor losing "at this point."
But should the U.S. lose, Gates predicted a much wider war, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.
"If we mishandle the next year or two and we leave Iraq in crisis, we will have a regional conflict on our hands," Gates said.
At the outset of an afternoon session of questions about Iraq and other subjects, Gates began by telling the committee he wanted to amplify on his remark in the morning about not winning in Iraq. He did not withdraw the remark but said, "I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."
He said he did not want U.S. troops to think he believes they are being unsuccessful in their assigned missions.
"Our military wins the battles that we fight," Gates said. "Where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on."
But for most of the session, Gates spoke with the freedom of a man who played no role in formulating the current strategy. He bluntly criticized decisions made early in the war, including the number of U.S. troops, Martin reports.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow was pressed by reporters about Gates' answer that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq — one that seemed to be in conflict with the president's own position.
Snow said that Gates' testimony, taken in its entirety, showed he shares Mr. Bush's view that the U.S. must help Iraq govern and defend itself.
"I know you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president. It doesn't exist," Snow told reporters.
Gates was noncommittal on questions about whether and when to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal, saying it "depends on the conditions on the ground." He also said that if confirmed he would go to Iraq soon to consult with U.S. commanders.
Asked later whether announcing a specific troop withdrawal timetable would send a signal of U.S. weakness, Gates said it "would essentially tell (the insurgents) how long they have to wait until we're gone."
The hearing was nonconfrontational, with occasional hints of humor from Gates. Much of the questioning from panel members was focused on whether he would provide independent advice to Mr. Bush, and the former CIA director assured the committee that he would not shirk from that duty.