Bush Ally Is Set to Make a Bid for Lott's Post

So, Now.... we see "the plan" unfold.


ASHINGTON, Dec. 19 Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, a close ally of President Bush, tonight became the first Republican to openly challenge Trent Lott for the position of majority leader and quickly won the support of several influential colleagues.

"If it is clear that a majority of the Republican caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role," Mr. Frist said in a statement issued by his office.

Within an hour of Senator Frist's statement, some of his Republican colleagues, including John W. Warner of Virginia and Lamar Alexander, the incoming junior senator from Tennessee, began rallying around him.

"I'm pleased to join the Bill Frist team," Senator Warner told reporters at a hastily called news conference in the rotunda of the Russell Senate office building. "And I can assure you the team is growing in numbers very quickly. And I think it is in the best interest of Congress that the Republican caucus have a choice."

Mr. Frist's actions make the future even more uncertain for Senator Lott, who has been been embroiled in controversy over racially charged remarks he made earlier this month. Mr. Lott has been trying to win support among a majority of his colleagues, a task that was easier when there was no clear alternative. Now that Mr. Frist, who is said to be the White House favorite for the job, has emerged, critics of Mr. Lott have someone around whom to coalesce.

"If Bill Frist is a candidate for majority leader, I'm for him," said Mr. Alexander, the former education secretary whom Mr. Frist assiduously courted to run for the Senate. "He's my neighbor, my friend, my senior senator and one of our best national leaders."

Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who was the first Republican to suggest that his party consider an alternative for Mr. Lott a statement that some Republicans interpreted as a move to seek the job himself did not comment tonight on Mr. Frist. But a Republican aide said Mr. Nickles "would likely be supportive of a Frist candidacy."

Despite the appearance of a growing coalition for Mr. Frist, Mr. Lott's spokesman warned tonight that he would not leave his job without a fight.

"Senate Republican leader Trent Lott will be the majority leader in the next Congress," said the spokesman, Ron Bonjean. "He has a track record of loyalty, dedication and experience in shepherding President Bush's agenda for all Americans through the Senate."

Mr. Frist's candidacy came as a relief to Mr. Bush's top political aides, who have despaired as the travails of Mr. Lott, a Mississippi Republican, have dominated the political headlines and events have veered out of their control, an unusual occurrence for a disciplined White House that has become accustomed to controlling much of the agenda of Washington.

White House officials insisted today that "they had done nothing to encourage" Mr. Frist, but Republicans close to Mr. Bush have called Mr. Frist a White House favorite to replace Mr. Lott. Republicans said it was essential that the White House not be seen as interfering in the clubby world of the Senate.

Any perceived attempts on the part of the Whitehouse to manipulate the outcome of the leadership vote, they said, were likely to backfire.

For that reason, some Republicans said today that Mr. Frist was hardly assured of the post, should he seek it, because he would be viewed as too close to the White House by senators wishing to assert their independence.

Mr. Frist is also a relative newcomer, Republicans said, and his leadership skills are untested.

Throughout the day, a steady chorus of influential Republicans, some extremely close to Mr. Bush, continued to question Mr. Lott's ability to survive and said they did not see how he would function effectively if he remained in the position.

"It's going to be tough for him to lead," said Brad Freeman, a close friend of Mr. Bush's and a major Republican fund raiser in California. "The Democrats would keep using it all the time, and the whole Senate would be considering the wrong things."

Mr. Frist's potential candidacy emerged late in the day, as Mr. Lott was home in Mississippi working the phones to secure support among Republican senators, who are scheduled meet on Jan. 6 to discuss his future. After several days of issuing strong statements in his own defense and vowing to hang onto his Senate position, Mr. Lott made no public statements today.

Yet, the few public statements made today by Mr. Lott's colleagues did not indicate that he was making much progress. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Craig Thomas of Wyoming both hinted broadly they would support a candidate other than Mr. Lott.

"His ability as a leader dissipates on a daily basis," Mr. Inhofe said, in an interview with The Daily Oklahoman of Oklahoma City. Senator Warner said later that Mr. Inhofe now supported Senator Frist.

As soon as word of Mr. Frist's statement became public, lawmakers and other Senate officials said they expected support to build for him quickly.

"It's all over," said one Republican Senate aide.

Mr. Warner said he spoke to Mr. Frist shortly after he issued the statement saying he would probably seek the nomination. "I said, `Senator Frist, we're taking the word likely out,' " Mr. Warner said, adding that Mr. Frist replied, "Go to it. It's out, no equivocation."
Aside from himself and Mr. Inhofe, Senator George F. Allen of Virginia is also supporting Senator Frist, Mr. Warner said. He said he had tried to reach Mr. Lott tonight, without success.

"He has has been a strong floor leader and a very good strategist," Mr. Warner said. "I endeavored to call him today to let him know our intentions. But this is bigger than friendship."

The controversy around Mr. Lott erupted two weeks ago at a 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on a Dixiecrat platform devoted to preserving racial segregation. At the party on Dec. 5, Mr. Lott said the nation would have been better off had Mr. Thurmond been elected.

Mr. Lott's supporters continued to say that the majority leader would not only survive but be able to work effectively with the White House.

"It's going to be a problem for a while," said Charles Black, a Republican lobbyist who is close to Mr. Lott. "But if he follows through on the things he's talked about in good faith, that's going to convince anybody."

Mr. Black said that a chastened Mr. Lott had vowed to push policies and legislation to help minorities and that "if he does, when Congress comes back, it won't take long to restore confidence."

He added: "The biggest part of that job is working with other senators up there, and he's always been good at that. That's his strength."