After several public apologies for remarks that appeared to endorse racial separation, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott is locked in a growing fight to keep his job as leader of a new GOP majority in the Senate.
In the end, it may not be the shrill voices on cable news calling for his resignation that will count. Or even a head count of Senate colleagues who rally in support - or don't. It will likely be the knock on the door from a close friend who has just talked with the White House and suggests that it's time to go.
So far, that hasn't happened. Nor have potential rivals for the leadership spot - such as Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma or Bill Frist of Tennessee - spoken up on the matter. But the top job in the Senate is the key position for getting the Bush agenda through the Congress, especially with a margin of only two seats.
While House leaders can use the powerful Rules Committee to limit debate and eke out legislative victories, in the Senate it's all about persuasion. Lott, along with the Speaker of the House, is the most visible face of Republicans in Congress. Republicans, especially many conservatives, worry Mr. Lott's comments will limit the party's ability to expand its base. "Trent Lott has thrown back efforts to reach out for many, many a year, and as long as he is leader of Republicans on the Hill that will be a problem for any effort for Republican outreach," says a GOP official.
Careless words can derail careers. Ask one-time presidential hopeful George Romney, who told a talk radio station he had been "brainwashed" on a trip to Vietnam. Or President Ford, whose own presidential hopes diminished after his comment in a 1976 presidential debate that "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe."
Lott's endorsement of Strom Thurmond's racially divisive 1948 campaign hits the deepest divide in American politics - race. It's especially sensitive, since he had to apologize for a similar remark in 1980.
"I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either," he said at a retirement party for the South Carolina senator last week.
Lott was seven years old when Senator Thurmond told an Alabama crowd that "there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." His 1948 presidential campaign, though not as explicitly hateful as that of other white supremacists of the period, focused on maintaining the rights of a segregationist South. Asked about these remarks 41 years later, Thurman told biographer Nadine Cohodas: "If I had to run that race again, some of the wording I used would not be used."
That's not unlike what Lott is saying about his own remarks. On Monday, he described his tribute to Thurman as just part of a "lighthearted celebration." Then, as criticism mounted, he apologized to anyone who had been offended and said he had not intended to "embrace discarded policies of the past."
On Wednesday, Lott again apologized and described his remarks as "terrible ... poorly chosen and insensitive" and "a mistake of the head, not the heart," borrowing a phrase once used by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to apologize for an anti-Semitic comment.
Lott began his political life working for Rep. William Colmer (D) of Mississippi, one of the fiercest opponents of civil rights in the 1960s. Colmer endorsed Lott's successful bid to replace him in 1972. "Lott is an inheritor of that Colmer tradition," says Patrick Maney, a historian at the University of South Carolina. "He certainly would not overtly oppose civil rights legislation today, but he also isn't repudiating his inheritance."
IN southern politics, symbols count. Lott's support for the emblem of the Confederate flag; his 1981 friend-of-the-court brief in support of Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status over a ban on interracial dating; and ties to a group that seems to support race separation have all raised concerns. "We are distressed beyond words that he could be so wrapped up in his own community that has a tradition of exclusion and bias and bigotry...." says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, head of the Black Leadership Forum.
Many prominent Democrats have denounced the remarks. But the biggest concern for the embattled leader are the signals from GOP ranks, especially among conservatives. Critics from evangelist Pat Robertson to William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, blasted Lott's remarks. Longtime friend Jack Kemp called on Lott to "totally repudiate segregation and every aspect of its evil manifestation ... The party can't duck it."
"The party has to reach out to minority populations, even they are in the majority," says James Thurber, a professor at American University in Washington. "That is coming to an end. To gain more votes, they have to reach out to Hispanics and African Americans."