WASHINGTON -- One day after embattled Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) apologized a third time for statements that critics regarded as racist, many Republicans say he has improved his chances of holding onto his leadership post -- but he's not out of the woods yet.
Lott's allies are rallying to help contain the damage, fielding a phalanx of defenders on today's news talk shows in a public relations offensive to put the controversy behind him. More quietly, his supporters are telling Senate Republicans that it could cause as much political trouble for the party to dump him from his leadership post as it would to keep him. They warn that forcing Lott from the leadership could drive him out of the Senate, threatening the party's two-seat majority.
On Saturday, Lott's spokesman declared Lott's latest apology a watershed in the senator's fight to hold onto his job. "We feel very confident that we are turning the corner," press secretary Ron Bonjean said.
Still, many Republicans have been taking a wait-and-see attitude about Lott's future following his Friday news conference, in which he admitted a "grievous" error in making comments at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that appeared to endorse the segregationist platform of Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign.
At this point, Lott's fate rests largely in the hands of his 50 Senate Republican colleagues, who elected him leader last month. Their decision will be affected not simply by rational calculations of political interest. An equally powerful force may be the clubby folkways of the Senate, a tradition-bound institution whose members are very reluctant to criticize one another.
As a result, many Republicans who are appalled by what Lott said are giving him the benefit of the doubt. No one has called for him to step down, although some have been jockeying for position in case he does. As a result, some strategists say, Lott may be safe -- unless another damaging revelation about his past emerges or the White House drops its support for him as leader.
"The Senate is very resistant to coups," said a senior Republican Senate aide. "The question is whether the White House effects a regime change. It maybe is easier in Iraq than in the Senate."
Whichever course Senate Republicans choose, the situation is fraught with political risks. If Lott stays on, GOP strategists say, the controversy threatens to dog him and make it harder for him to lead the fight for the Bush agenda over the next two years -- especially on issues, such as judicial appointments, that raise race-related concerns. Many Republicans are worried about the political damage the controversy will do to the GOP's efforts to expand its support among minorities. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the outgoing chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, raised those concerns at length in a Friday night conference call among Senate Republicans, according to a source who took part in the call. But when pressed by a colleague, Frist said he was not calling for Lott to step down, the source said.
If Lott is driven from the leadership, it presents other problems for the party. Particularly ominous is the prospect -- raised by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the conference call -- that Lott might quit the Senate if he could not continue as leader. His replacement would surely be a Democrat because he or she would be appointed by Mississippi's Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove. That would mean the GOP's 51-49 balance of power in the Senate would be lost. Republicans would still control the chamber, because Vice President Dick Cheney has the power to break a Senate tie, but it would make the GOP's position vulnerable to the party-switching whims of even a single member.
Many Republicans dismiss those warnings as a scare tactic, saying Lott would not be so vindictive as to resign and hobble his party.
Reaction to Lott's news conference indicates he may have at least won some breathing room in the controversy that has relentlessly escalated daily for more than a week.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) had telephoned Lott earlier last week "loaded for bear," an aide said, urging him to apologize in a full-dress news conference. After Friday's appearance, Snowe issued a statement saying "Sen. Lott needed to offer a personal, passionate, and sincere renunciation of racism and segregation in all its forms, and he did that tonight."
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who is up for reelection in 2004, said through spokesman Brian Stoller that Lott seemed "sincerely remorseful" in his news conference. Stoller said Fitzgerald believes "individuals should be judged based on a lifetime of work, not by the few times he makes public utterances that are patently ridiculous."
However, some critics said Lott did not go far enough because he did not repudiate other elements of his record that they considered evidence of racial insensitivity, such as his House vote in 1983 against making the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday a federal holiday.
"It was a pretty uneven press conference," said John Weaver, a Republican - turned - Democrat who is a political advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "On question after question, he turned back to campaign platitudes, as opposed to answering questions."
But to build on Lott's defense of his own record, his allies Saturday distributed talking points to each Republican senator appearing on television talk shows today.