Don Nickles knows all about cleaning up after other people. As a student at Oklahoma State University, he formed his own janitorial business. And though he's been a U.S. senator for 16 years, he's still prepared to mop up potential messes as Senate Republican Whip and top lieutenant to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
But Nickles, 48, is ready to show that being No.2 isn't just grunt work. While Lott hones the deal-cutting reputation he earned after replacing Bob Dole in June, Nickles is carving out his own niche as high-profile defender of conservative GOP principles. In recent weeks, he's spoken out against modifying the tough welfare-reform bill passed by the last Congress, pressed Attorney General Janet Reno to name an independent counsel to probe "serious, significant abuses" by Democratic fund-raisers, and lashed as "ridiculous" bipartisan calls for a blue-ribbon commission on Medicare. "He will be Lott's conscience with the conservatives," predicts Charles Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "He keeps Lott from getting too far out front in the consensus-building role."
HOLDING FAST. Friends and foes alike see a leadership strategy unfolding: Nickles will apply rhetorical pressure so that Lott surrenders as little conservative ground as possible in cutting deals with the White House. "Publicly, he's more aggressive than Trent Lott, even though they are close ideologically," says David Mason, vice-president for government affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There's a little bit of good cop/bad cop" in the relationship, Mason says.
That's fine with movement stalwarts, whose distrust of Establishment conservatives such as George Bush and Bob Dole was deep. But right-leaning activists say they are willing to give Lott and Nickles maneuvering room. With 100% ratings from abortion foes and small-business groups, and strong, personal relationships with Republican moderates, "Nickles is trusted by all elements of the coalition," says Marty Dannenfelser of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank.
For his part, Lott has tried to build close bonds with Dole protege Nickles--something the defeated Republican Presidential candidate never did with his deputy, Lott. The new GOP leader has promised his Sooner sidekick more staff, prime office space, and a fancy new title: Assistant Majority Leader. Nickles, who was outmaneuvered by Lott for Dole's job, has responded by embracing his ex-rival. "Nickles is on the team," says U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Lonnie P. Taylor. "He knows Lott is the leader. There's no hesitation or reservation."
SOME STRAINS. Still, friends say Nickles, who ran his family's machine-parts business before joining the Senate, yearns to be top dog one day. Some Republicans see Lott as Presidential timber, and pressure may mount on the Magnolia State Republican to leave the Senate in 2000 to run in the GOP primaries, as Dole did in '96. To solidify his position as heir apparent, Nickles may try to establish a bolder Senate identity--pushing more aggressively than Lott has for pet issues such as regulatory relief for business, tax reform, and a constitutional prohibition of abortion. He may also lead the charge to save the Religious Right's cherished child tax break from falling victim to any balanced-budget compromise.
Some strains are inevitable between the two deeply conservative political veterans. But Nickles knows that the best way to position himself for the top job is to perform well in his current post--and perhaps even help the ambitious Lott move onward and upward.