As GOP ponders Lott's fate, contenders surface

Faced with swelling protest, GOP senators reconsider their choice of leader. The main prospects jockey for position.

As Senate Republican leader Trent Lott hunkers down to salvage a job he once described as "herding cats," GOP colleagues are already taking measure of those likely - or willing - to succeed him.

If voted out of office when the GOP caucus meets on Jan. 6, Senator Lott would be the first majority leader ever removed by his own party. Coups to oust any party leader are rare events on Capitol Hill, and usually intensely private. They're typically fought over internal party politics - a bitter rivalry, failure to communicate or accommodate, vaunted ambition.

There was no trace of plots - or even a willing rival - when Republicans voted unanimously last month to keep Mississippi's junior senator in the top leadership spot. And for more than a week after Lott's fateful comment that appeared to support segregation, those members who spoke out did so in support of their embattled leader.

But the growing firestorm of protest, despite yet another apology by Lott Monday night on Black Entertainment TV, has swiftly changed that calculus. After one GOP senator broke ranks Sunday, the caucus quickly scheduled a meeting to reconsider its choice of leader. The forum is set for high noon one day before the new Congress convenes on Jan. 7 - but some insiders say the decision could come earlier.

Even before the current crisis, many caucus members were unhappy with aspects of Lott's leadership, especially what some saw as a record of giving too much away to Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Conservatives outside Congress complained that Lott thought too much about Mississippi and not enough about national leadership. He also rarely helped outside groups raise funds.

A focus on perception - and polls

In the past, Lott has been protected by a paucity of rivals who wanted the job, and his own ability to keep track of the wants and needs of his caucus. But what's driving this coup is not internal Senate politics. It's the perception, widely shared by Republican groups outside Congress, that Lott's remarks have damaged the party and could derail President Bush's legislative agenda, even his reelection prospects.

"What will go on between now and January 6 - more than [in] other leadership cases - is going to be a lot of attention to polls," says John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

In 1997, he says, "the abortive coup against [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich reflected dissatisfaction with the way he was handling House business. Here, the driving force is external. This is playing out very much in public, and Lott will have to defend himself in public."

Not only Lott's record, but the records of likely replacements, will be under intense scrutiny, especially on race-related issues.

The potential candidates

Here are the names that come up most frequently as prospects to replace Lott:

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma. On Sunday, the outgoing Republican whip was the first to publicly call for a meeting on whether Lott should continue as leader.

That could hurt him, insiders say. "When you draw the sword, you're likely to fall on it," says Mr. Pitney.

A strong supporter of conservative principles, he is popular with religious groups in the party and some business groups. He helped run his family's machine business before winning a US Senate race in 1980, making him the youngest Republican ever elected to that body. Critics caution he is not the party's most effective spokesman.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Replacing Senator Nickles as party whip, Senator McConnell is best known for his long battle against campaign reform. While the fight won him the respect of many Republicans, his opposition could become a political liability with the public, which supported limiting big money in politics. Bright and articulate, he's also been consistent: He opposed both a flag-burning amendment and campaign-finance reform as limits on constitutionally protected speech.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. The first practicing physician elected to the US Senate since 1928, Senator Frist won credit both for his leadership during the anthrax attacks in October 2001 and for the party's strong showing in Senate races this year, which he supported as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He also enjoys the support of President Bush, who named him the liaison between the Senate and the White House. A strong supporter of modernizing Medicare, he's also a lead spokesman for famine relief in Africa.

With reputed presidential ambitions of his own in 2008, he may be reluctant to take on such a high-wire job. (Note, however, that in his 1999 book, "Tennessee Senators, 1911-2001," he praises Sen. Howard Baker for "extinguishing his own presidential aspirations" to take on a tough assignment.)

And others ...

Also figuring in the buzz on a replacement is Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, just reelected as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Before his election to the Senate in 1994, he helped bring the GOP to power in the House for the first time in more than 40 years. Some colleagues say his style - forged in the fires of a House revolt - is too brash for leading a Senate majority. His signature issues are welfare reform and federal support for faith-based initiatives, especially in poor cities.

A dark-horse prospect, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, is a favorite of some business groups for his strong stands on defense. He also has a solid record of legislative accomplishment working with Democrats. "He would be the kind of person who isn't offensive to lots of people," says a conservative leader outside Capitol Hill.

Also mentioned in the dark-horse column is Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the most outspoken and articulate of the leadership prospects. A Vietnam war hero, he's emerging as a key voice on issues involving war and peace in the Senate. But he is viewed as a maverick by the Bush team and some of his GOP colleagues, who question whether he has the temperament for the biggest insider job in the Senate.

What's tough about handicapping these races is that, in the end, Senate politics is intensely personal. It's the accretion of private understandings, favors, or slights. Even leadership rank isn't necessarily a stepping stone to higher office. "It's really about the individuals and not the positions they hold," says Don Ritchie, a Senate historian.

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