- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Within an hour of President Bush's speech to the United Nations on Iraq last week, the unlikely Republican team of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and Sen. John McCain was on the airwaves to support Mr. Bush.

The pairing of Mr. Lott, a Bush loyalist, and Mr. McCain, a media favorite who frequently opposes the White House, was so irresistible that many reporters walked out of a news conference in progress with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

"I'm losing my audience," Mr. Daschle said in the midst of his session at the Capitol. "Was it something I said?"

The Republicans' joint appearance was the latest example of a new strategy by Mr. Lott to compete more effectively in the media with the Democrats. Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, said in an interview that he decided in late July to take "a more aggressive mode" with the media.

"You're either on message offense or message defense," Mr. Lott said. "It seems to have been trumping what Daschle has been doing, either putting him in a position of having to respond to what we're saying or having his message drowned out by our message."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Daschle said the majority leader isn't exactly running scared.

"To tell you the truth, we hadn't noticed that Senator Lott had a new media strategy," said spokeswoman Molly Rowley. "However, Senator Daschle thinks debate in a democracy is a good thing, and we're happy that Senator Lott is engaging in that."

The most visible sign of the new game plan is simply Mr. Lott's increased visibility. He has boosted the number of televised news conferences he holds at the Capitol from the usual two per week to four virtually every day that the Senate is in session.

Sometimes with a colleague at his side, sometimes alone, Mr. Lott has presented a relentless message for the White House on homeland security, fiscal restraint and, most recently, on a use-of-force resolution against Iraq.

A Bush administration official said the press conference with Mr. McCain, in which the Arizona Republican pressured Democrats to vote on Iraq before the November elections, was "just perfect."

"He's been incredibly effective in helping to drive the message," the official said of Mr. Lott.

Mr. McCain, not one to endear himself to his Republican colleagues, joked with Mr. Lott before their news conference that they should hold such events weekly.

"I said, 'Yeah, every week that you're on the right side,'" Mr. Lott recalled.

So faithfully has Mr. Lott espoused Mr. Bush's message that he even repeated a colloquialism uttered by the Texan recently, using the word "crawfished" as a verb.

"We don't use that same language by design," Mr. Lott said. "It's where we're from. 'Crawfish' means to slither out of the way or back up fast."

The strategy also involves Mr. Lott going on more radio call-in shows and conducting more television interviews from Monday through Friday. The plan was born partly from Mr. Lott's realization that weekend campaigning around the nation this fall for Republican Senate candidates would make it more difficult for him to appear on Sunday TV talk shows based in Washington.

"I thought I could offset that by doing more aggressively shows during the week, call-in radio shows, and the [news conferences]," he said. "Frankly, this is the time you really need to do it. We're in the critical stages of the session and in the election."

The Mississippi Republican can regain the majority leader's post he lost last year if the GOP gains just one seat in the Senate, which now has 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.

The media strategy can't hurt Mr. Lott's position within his party, either. Assistant Minority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma is term-limited in his post and has not ruled out a challenge to Mr. Lott for the party's top spot in the Senate. If Republicans do regain the majority, many party insiders say Mr. Lott would almost certainly be rewarded by keeping the top job.

Mr. Lott's leadership political action committee, the New Republican Majority Fund, has donated $576,000 to Republican candidates in this election cycle, compared with $286,000 from Mr. Nickles' leadership PAC.

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