WASHINGTON — As Trent Lott chats with reporters outside the Senate chamber, a mischievous grin crosses his face. "Be right back," he says.
Without making a sound, the Mississippi Republican sidles up behind his long-time friend and colleague, Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R) and gives his left ear lobe a playful yank.
"Gotcha!" he quips.
The moment reveals much about Mr. Lott, the man who will likely replace Bob Dole today as Senate majority leader. Gregarious and good-humored, Lott cultivates informal friendships with fellow lawmakers in a way Mr. Dole never would.
But Lott's garrulousness is only part of the picture. Colleagues also know him as an ambitious, persistent, and shrewd politician who mines every waking moment for political advantage.
His nearly certain victory today over fellow Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in the leadership contest marks the ascent of a new generation of senators: young turks who came of age in the House of Representatives and prefer its confrontational style.
If anything, Lott's tenure as Senate majority leader could turn up the volume in a chamber long modulated by courtliness and reserve.
"Trent Lott is a true conservative," says Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (R). "If he has to keep the Senate open all night or all weekend for something we're right about, he'll do it."
Mr. Gramm's assessment is shared by Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), who suggests that Lott's election could add to "what is already a significant amount of polarization."
Indeed, Lott seems to enjoy using the Senate rostrum for political flamethrowing. Last week, when President Clinton's lawyers tried to block a sexual harassment suit against the president by invoking his "active duty" military status, Lott pounced.
"That was a defining moment for Trent," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "It's this kind of hands-on, take-charge attitude I think we'll see a lot more of."
Within the Republican conference, Lott's brazen style has drawn alternative jabs and praise. To many Republicans, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), Lott's "great rapport with the House" is an asset in advancing Republican goals.
Others, however, especially long-time GOP moderates, say he lacks the kind of clout enjoyed by more-senior members like Dole, and frown upon his thirst for conflict. This generation gap became apparent during last year's bitter race for majority whip, when Lott defeated Dole's choice, veteran Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R), by one vote.
Even Dole, in a lukewarm assessment, places Lott firmly in the other chamber. "Trent's been a good whip," Dole told the Monitor. "He knows his place. He knows the House."
Yet most Republicans, ranging from younger conservatives like Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham to moderates like Maine's Sen. Olympia Snowe, describe Lott as inclusive and pragmatic. "He's a master of the soft sell," says Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Even some Democrats offer plaudits. Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina hails Lott's role in crafting this year's bipartisan telecommunications bill. And Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey suggests Lott might be easier to work with than his predecessor.
"Bob Dole has this steely image," Mr. Kerrey says. "If you go up to ask him a question, you almost feel like you're bothering him. Trent's much more approachable."
Most members attribute Lott's success in the insular world of the Senate to his tireless legwork on the floor, where he buzzes around with "the list" - a pocket-sized card bearing the initials of every senator and his or her positions on pending bills. "Trent loves to count votes," says Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island. "He's indefatigable at it."
Lott's arrival at the highest echelon of American politics surprises few who know him. From Mrs. P.J. Higginbotham's high school music classes in his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss., to the University of Mississippi, to Capitol Hill, Lott has demonstrated a consistent ability to win the respect of his peers.
Mrs. Higginbotham remembers Lott as a skilled tenor who played the lead in several operettas and charmed the entire class, including his future wife, Trisha Thompson. "He was serious but fun," she recalls. "He takes what comes and does the best he can with it."
At Ole Miss, Lott honed his political skills in an environment where elections were prefaced by Dixieland bands, midnight torch processions, and handshaking marathons. Lott was elected to the cheerleading squad and to the presidency of the Intrafraternity Council. He also suffered his worst setback: losing a race for student body president. "If you can survive in Ole Miss campus politics," Lott recently told undergraduates, "you can survive anywhere."
After law school, Lott moved to Washington to work for long-time Mississippi Rep. Bill Colmer (R). He won his first House election in 1972 and spent 16 years there, rising to minority whip. He has held his Senate seat since 1988.
Once elected to Congress, Lott began building a base of support. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona remembers that just hours after he won his first primary in 1982, Lott called to congratulate him. Senate staffers acknowledge that Lott began campaigning for Dole's job after the Kansan seemed sure of the GOP presidential nomination - long before Dole even decided to resign.
Lott describes himself as a conservative with a "populist streak." Although he admires the supply-side economic theories and tax-cutting philosophies of establishment Republicans, he is an outspoken opponent of abortion and homosexual rights. He is not reluctant to bring military contracts and other federal monies back to Mississippi, the nation's poorest state.
On the campaign trail, Lott ditches his dapper Washington garb and black sedan for flannel shirts and a pickup truck. He reminds voters that he is the son of a schoolteacher and a shipyard worker.
Part of Lott's popularity in Congress, says William Ferris, director of Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, stems from his upbringing. "Southerners are taught from childhood to defer to others and be polite," he says. "These skills work well in places like Congress, where there is a diversity of cultures."
But much of Lott's appeal, colleagues say, is unique. One old friend, Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D), notes that Lott's meticulousness in the political arena spills over into his personal life. "He's incredibly neat," Mr. Breaux says. "I've never seen his hair mussed." Once, Breaux recalls, during a visit to Mississippi, Breaux's wife, Lois, smashed a bug on Lott's windshield, leaving oozy fingerprints. "This was very upsetting to Trent Lott," he laughs. "He gets rattled when everything isn't perfectly in place."
Other senators mention Lott's sense of humor. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (R) recalls that during an airplane trip, Lott watched him tear through a stack of newspapers and discard them in a haphazard pile. From then on, Lugar says, Lott began referring to any disheveled heap of papers as being "lugarized."
"Trent truly enjoys people," Senator Mack says, well out of ear-tugging range. "Every day is a positive day for him. It's as if he wakes up with a smile in his heart."