WASHINGTON – Trent Lott fans were as scarce as hen’s teeth in this town yesterday.

One top Republican public relations firm was asked by the New York Times to round up some conservative backers of the beleaguered Senate majority leader. There was much head-scratching but few names forthcoming. Lott’s support was headed for the tall grass.

Many prominent Republicans and conservatives believed the handwriting was on the wall in the form of a New York Times lead story yesterday. It began: “Republicans with close ties to the Bush administration said today that Sen. Trent Lott had no chance of remaining majority leader and that the White House wanted him out.”

Lott may have had some Republican supporters when the day began yesterday, but few wanted to cross the Bush administration to stand by their man who created a national uproar Dec. 5 by praising former segregationist and Dixiecrat Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party as the best man running for president in 1948.

While some Democrats piled on, others seemed to believe a weakened Lott in the role of majority leader was in their best interest politically. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said he accepted Lott’s apology. That announcement bolstered Lott, according to reports, but it also made some Republicans wince.

In his various apologies in recent days, Lott has flip-flopped on long-held political positions such as affirmative action. Some of his GOP colleagues fear he has become too beholden to his critics and political adversaries.

Most importantly, the White House continued to distance itself from Lott and his remarks.

Nevertheless, Lott vowed to fight.

“I am the son of a shipyard worker from Pascagoula, Mississippi,” he told ABC News. “I have had to fight all of my life and I am not stopping now.”

Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, who on Monday scheduled a Jan. 6 meeting of the 51 Senate Republicans to decide Lott’s fate, predicted yesterday the 61-year-old Mississippian would prevail.

Even at that, others were speculating Santorum of Pennsylvania himself was more likely than Lott to be majority leader come Jan. 6.

The Lott furor has diverted focus from Bush’s agenda and his attempt to recruit to the Republican Party more minorities, who traditionally vote Democratic. That, according to many Republican sources, has White House political adviser Karl Rove beside himself. Rove is said to favor Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee for the job.

Officially, the White House was still supporting Lott.

“The president believes that Senator Lott does not need to resign,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “The president thinks that Senator Lott has apologized and rightly so.” But that was hardly the ringing endorsement Lott needed from a Republican White House at a time like this.

The job of majority leader wields considerable power, including helping set the party’s agenda and deciding when to call up legislation and nominations for votes.

Senate Republican assistant leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma was the first Republican senator on Sunday to say the party should consider ousting a “weakened” Lott. Nickles is also perceived as having shot himself in the foot if he hoped to succeed Lott.


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