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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 19:05 GMT
Republicans avoid ugly fight
Senator Trent Lott
Mr Lott's departure clears the way for a Bush ally

Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief.

Senator Trent Lott had appeared to be digging in his heels for a fight to retain his position as Republican leader in the Senate as controversy swirled around him for recent racially insensitive comments.

Republicans feared not only an ugly battle within their party but worse - one that would focus on the explosive issue of race in America.

Now, the Republicans can choose a new leader - one who, they hope, will more aggressively push President Bush's agenda in the Senate.

Ugly fight avoided

An ugly fight within the party had been brewing all week.

Senator Lott said he would not go quietly. "I have had to fight all of my life. And I am not stopping now."

His allies were reportedly examining the voting record of potential rival Senator Don Nickles to undermine his rival's position.

Mr Lott's leadership was to come under review in early January, but increasingly Republicans knew that letting the controversy drag on would only damage the party.
Tennessee Senator Bill Frist
White House ally Bill Frist has emerged as a front runner to succeed Mr Lott

It had already given the media an opportunity to review the Republican Party's conflicted history on race.

And black Republicans said it was hurting their efforts to win over fellow blacks to the conservative cause.

The controversy did take some wind out of the sails of the triumphant Republican Party.

But Mr Lott's resignation deprives Democrats of a rallying cry that they could have used in critical get-out-the-vote efforts amongst blacks in the next election.

The black and Hispanic vote has become increasingly important in this era of close elections.

Mr Lott's departure as majority leader also gives Republicans an opportunity to choose someone who will more aggressively pursue President Bush's agenda in the Senate.

Senator Bill Frist, who has emerged as the front-runner to replace Mr Lott, is seen as a strong ally of President Bush and the White House favourite to succeed Senator Lott.

Loss of White House support

Senator Lott had made repeated apologies for comments he made at the 100th birthday of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond.

Mr Lott said the country would have been better off had they elected Mr Thurmond as president in 1948 when he ran on a staunchly pro-segregationist platform.

Mr Lott issued a series of increasingly repentant apologies.

But the public displays of repentance increasingly took on an air of desperation. The damage was done.
President Bush volunteers at a Washington food bank
President Bush knows the black vote is important to his re-election

He had lost the support of some of his colleagues in the Senate, and the White House clearly had abandoned him.

"Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," Mr Bush said in a recent address.

The president already has his eyes on his re-election effort for 2004, and he knows that he must win over more black voters.

Al Gore won 90% of the black vote in 2000, and support of Senator Lott would have done little to improve Mr Bush's standing with blacks.

The lack of support from the White House stung Mr Lott. "There seems to be some things that are seeping out [of the White House] that have not been helpful," he told reporters as he tried to retain his leadership position.

Although he promised a fight, Mr Lott realised it was a battle that he could not win and a battle that the Republican Party desperately wanted to avoid.

See also:

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