- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

Sen. Trent Lott's decision to step down as majority leader yesterday effectively ends the story that has dominated the news for two weeks and sets the stage for President Bush and Republicans to flex their newly won political muscle, say party officials and strategists.
"All the racial charges will be off the radar screens by the second week of January, but, unfortunately, it's not justice for Trent Lott," said veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black.
"This obviously was a big distraction and a big nuisance, but because of the size of our victory, the press was just waiting for the chance to swing the political pendulum back the other way," Mr. Black said.
For the White House, Mr. Lott's resignation means it's time to refocus the public on a war with Iraq and domestic issues, such as igniting a stagnant economy.
"Now the attention can shift back to the president's agenda and what he wants to get done over the next two years," an administration adviser said.
Mr. Bush plans to promote a reform agenda, including a tax-stimulus package, Medicare reform and enactment of a prescription-drug benefit for needy seniors when the newly minted, Republican-controlled Congress returns in January.
Although Mr. Lott had his supporters and opponents in the Senate's GOP caucus, few in the party disagreed that his remarks praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for president were an embarrassment that wouldn't go away.
Mr. Lott's lobbying efforts to keep his post began to collapse when the White House sent word through back channels that Mr. Lott had to be replaced and that Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee was Mr. Bush's choice for leader. The White House insists it didn't pursue Mr. Lott's ouster.
Then, Virginia senators John W. Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and George Allen, the new chairman of the Senate's Republican campaign committee, urged Mr. Lott to resign and called on Mr. Frist to take the leadership reins. Mr. Frist sent word back that he was prepared to become leader if Republicans wanted him.
Republican strategists said yesterday that they do not think Mr. Lott's remarks would hurt their party in the long term, largely because of Mr. Bush's stern rebuke that came in a speech several days later.
"I'm optimistic because of the clarity and conviction with which Bush spoke on this subject and the way that Lott did what's best for the party and the country," said Ralph Reed, the Republicans' Georgia chairman.
"We're going to move forward with a conservative agenda, but it will be the president's leadership that will show [blacks and other minorities] that the Republicans stand for equal opportunity for every American," Mr. Reed said.
If Mr. Frist succeeds Mr. Lott, as seems certain, he is guaranteed to have an unusually close working relationship with Mr. Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Both were impressed with the way that the Mr. Frist ran the Senate campaign committee in the party's drive to win back control.
"When all is said and done, we got a good leader out of it. I think he's extremely capable," Mr. Black said. "Frist is smart, he is popular, he has great people skills and works harder than anybody out there."
Mr. Lott's support was weakest among the GOP's newly elected senators, such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Jim Talent of Missouri, who ran on getting things done in the Senate. Mr. Lott, they believed, was irreparably damaged as their leader.
"It is clear that his ability to lead our conference has diminished at a time when we face so many significant challenges to fight the war on terrorism, strengthen our economy and improve the American way of life at so many levels," Mr. Coleman said yesterday.

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