The Man Who Would Be Bob Dole

Trent Lott hopes to inherit the candidate's Senate mantle

Tensions were high as feuding Republicans faced off on Jan. 31 across House Speaker Newt Gingrich's conference table. After months of bickering over landmark legislation to deregulate the telecommunications industry, Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi bluntly told his colleagues: "There's got to be a point when you close this thing." Twenty minutes later, Lott had forged a compromise that Congress overwhelmingly approved the next day. "Trent did a terrific job," marvels Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Lott has been closing lots of deals lately. With Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole busy running for President, Lott--the No.2 Republican--has become the Senate's chief traffic cop, troubleshooter, and head-knocker. His recent successes include House and Senate agreements on line-item veto powers, product-liability reform, and regulatory relief for small business. Lott's secret? "He's tireless in trying to bring together people whose views are not totally the same," says GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, a fellow Mississippian.

Helping Dole put legislative points on the board has not only bolstered the Kansan's White House bid but has enhanced the odds that Lott, 54, will become the next GOP Senate leader. But his ascendancy is intensifying intraparty tensions between Lott's own crowd--largely younger, hard-line Sunbelt conservatives--and Dole's camp of moderates and conservative insiders. If Lott gets the top job, it would symbolize a fundamental change among Senate Republicans from old-line moderation to the new, more activist conservatism already dominant in the House of Representatives. (Lott would have to prevail in a secret-ballot election that would be held in early December if Dole is elected President.)

DEFICIT HAWK. Lott has never been in Dole's inner circle. Instead, he is close to Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), an erstwhile Dole rival for the Republican nomination. In 1988, he endorsed Presidential candidate Jack F. Kemp. And he won his leadership job in 1994 by toppling Dole pal Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Managing conflict is a lifetime specialty for Lott, son of a shipyard worker and schoolteacher. He often tells the story of how, as a boy, he mediated family arguments between his parents, who later divorced. In 1968, after getting hooked on politics while attending the University of Mississippi, Lott joined the staff of Representative William M. Colmer, conservative Democratic chair of the House Rules Committee. When Colmer retired in 1972, his 31-year-old aide ran for the seat and won--as a Republican.

Lott quickly rose to prominence as one of Richard M. Nixon's vocal defenders during House impeachment hearings. A leader of the GOP's conservative Young Turks, he became House GOP whip in 1980, a post he held until winning a Senate seat in 1988. Although an outspoken deficit hawk, Lott has been a fierce defender of federal spending for defense and shipbuilding in his home state. "If people want to call that pork, I plead guilty," he says. But irate Democrats say Lott's appetite for pork reveals a key political flaw. "It's the height of hypocrisy to say that you deliver for your state but to be against spending in the rest of the country," says Democratic consultant Kiki Moore.

Some Republicans gripe that Lott's ambition can get the best of him. Critics complain that he at first promised not to challenge Simpson, then reversed course. "That's true," he admits. But when the GOP captured Congress, "the world changed," he explains.

In the coming race to succeed Dole, Lott and Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma are gearing up for battle: Last year, their political leadership committees dispensed more than $150,000 to GOP Senate candidates. Lott concedes that "it's not healthy to campaign for Bob Dole's job when Bob Dole is still in it." But the majority whip does everything with gusto, whether it's cutting deals or crooning as part of the Vocal Majority, a quartet of senators that made its Kennedy Center debut last year. Lott, a deep bass, got rave reviews for his performance. Now, it's his colleagues' applause he's seeking.

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