- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma is refusing to rule out a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, fueling speculation that he is working to gain the party's top spot after the November elections.
"It would be ridiculous to make Shermanesque statements," Mr. Nickles told reporters after CNN aired a report that he was lining up support among Republican senators and Senate candidates.
He was referring to the famous comment of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who ended speculation about a bid for the presidency by saying, "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve."
Mr. Nickles, the assistant minority leader, called the report that he was campaigning for the leader's post "hogwash." He said he is simply working as hard as he can to support Republican candidates.
But his flat refusal to rule out a challenge to Mr. Lott surprised even those who know him well, and it was viewed by Senate Republicans as another sign of how much is at stake as the Republican Party attempts to win back the majority this year.
"We're tired of the penalty box and we want to get out of it," said one Republican aide, referring to their minority status in the Senate.
Mr. Lott, of Mississippi, has received some of the blame for the Republicans' predicament. Republicans held a 55-45 majority in the Senate two years ago, but they lost five seats in the 2000 elections. Then last June, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate, 50-to-49-to-1.
There was published speculation early in 2001 and again last summer that Mr. Nickles would challenge Mr. Lott, but he did not. Some in the party viewed that as a sure sign that Mr. Nickles did not have the votes.
Mr. Lott defended his job performance last week, telling reporters at the Capitol, "I feel good about my relationship with the conference. I think we're working quite well together on the things that we believe in."
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Nickles has not approached him about the leadership post and that Mr. Lott has done a good job. He said he told Mr. Lott on Thursday on the Senate floor that his leadership was responsible for a majority of Republicans supporting the energy bill the Senate approved that day.
"I see that leadership time and time, coming to the forefront in these most difficult gridlock periods with our Democratic colleagues," Mr. Warner said. "He's a very forceful, well-trusted and well-respected leader. That's not to say anything against Nickles I respect both of those individuals.
Mr. Lott is a conservative but also enjoys the support of some key swing votes in the party, such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Nickles must give up his seat as assistant Republican leader after this year because he is term-limited. He could run for Mr. Lott's job or claim the top Republican seat on the Budget Committee; ranking committee Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico must leave that post at the end of this year because of term limits.
Mr. Warner, who co-chaired Bob Dole's campaign for majority leader in 1985 against Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, said intraparty contests "are never enjoyable experiences."
"Any battle for leadership is divisive," he said.
Another question mark is Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republicans' campaign committee. If Republicans do win back the majority this year, it would raise his profile in the party even higher, though Mr. Frist has not indicated he wants the top job.
Thirty-four Senate seats will be decided in November, 19 of them held by Republicans. Four Republicans are retiring; no Democrats are retiring this year.
Staff members say Mr. Lott and Mr. Nickles still appear to have a good working relationship.
"They talk nonstop, they work hand-in-glove and their staffs work very well together," said one Republican aide.

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