WASHINGTON -- If there was one Republican senator who took the news of Bob Dole's departure a bit more dry-eyed than the rest, it was the majority leader's chief deputy, Trent Lott.
The tall, handsome Mississippian, who blends courtly manners with a hard-edged political style, has quickly become the man to beat in a contest for Dole's leadership post that may well determine the tone and work habits of the Senate for years to come. Cooperate with a Democratic president? Make life hard for him? The leader of the Senate's Republicans helps make that choice.
Dole's decision to leave his Senate seat has another, more immediate effect for Lott: It frees him from what has been the awkward burden of working closely with Dole almost every day but never really having the Kansas senator's trust.
Lott, 54, came to the Senate eight years ago from the House, where he was a leader of what was then a tiny wing of young conservative GOP firebrands. They drove the Republican establishment crazy. And among his key lieutenants was a flame-throwing back-bencher named Newt Gingrich.
Since then, other Sun Belt conservatives have arrived in both the Senate and the House -- so many of them in 1995 that the Republican Party was able to take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
But Dole, still in his heart a Main Street Republican, has never been comfortable with Lott's more strident style. Dole remained the Republicans' No. 1 in the Senate, but didn't want Lott as majority whip -- that is, No. 2.
In a tightly fought contest for the post last year, Dole backed a longtime friend, Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who had been Dole's deputy since he became Republican leader 10 years earlier. Simpson lost by one vote, a bitter defeat both for him and for Dole.
At the same time, Lott wasn't Dole's biggest fan, either. His preference for the Republican presidential nomination was Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, another former House hard-liner.
For much of last year, Lott quietly joined Gramm in steadily pushing Dole to the right on policy issues, bringing the GOP closer in sync with Gingrich in the House.
Still, by all accounts, Lott was a loyal deputy to Dole.
During the primary season, Dole left his deputy day after day with the Senate grit work. In recent weeks, Lott has been assigned the even more thankless task of negotiating with Senate Democrats, trying to find agreement where it often appeared no agreement was possible.
But the measure of Dole's continuing distrust of Lott was revealed in the plan he initially contemplated: a troika to assume his Senate duties while he campaigned and retained his majority leader title. He told allies, including Gingrich, that under that arrangement, his Senate duties would be shared by Lott, Thad Cochran, also of Mississippi, and Don Nickles of Oklahoma.
That would prevent Lott from undercutting him, Dole reasoned, and deny him any advantage in the leadership succession race that would take place next year if Dole reached the White House.
But now the leadership race is a week or two away. And Lott's task will likely be to overcome the last of the Republican "old guard."
His most likely opponent will be Cochran, another courtly Mississippi legislator, but of a more moderate, soft-spoken stripe.
Cochran, 58, isn't really much less conservative than Lott. These days in Congress, almost all Republicans qualify as genuine conservatives. But he's less given to confrontation, more inclined to accommodation. Younger, newer Senate conservatives, many of whom have come from the House, feel more comfortable with Lott.
Lott figures he can win a two-way contest with Cochran, and thus his allies have been applying pressure lately to Nickles, who had also been considering a bid for majority leader when, and if, Dole stepped down.
Nickles, a boyish 47, has the approval of many of the GOP's young Turks in the Senate. But he doesn't have the same following or political heft as Lott. Nickles, as a result, is contemplating a bid to become Lott's No. 2.
A dark horse candidate, but surely the sentimental favorite of Dole is New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the Senate Budget Committee chairman who is such a close friend he was badly shaken by Dole's announcement yesterday.
In the curious nature of today's politics, Domenici, 64, now seems like a moderate. Hard-liners complain that he isn't radical enough because he would rather reduce the deficit than cut taxes -- and has even been known to vote for tax increases.
But Domenici labored side by side with Dole during the early and mid-1980s, when the Republicans last controlled the Senate and sought to bring some fiscal conservatism to the federal government.
He and Dole were among the first moderates to battle for a balanced budget. Domenici also believes, like Dole, that getting something done is usually preferable to grinding the government to a halt for the sake of a political issue.
Domenici has been rebuffed twice in attempts to break into the Senate GOP leadership. But he's rethinking the prospect because he believes Dole's sudden departure may have changed the dynamics of the selection process.
Five relatively moderate Republican senators who are retiring at the end of this year would be allowed to vote in this race -- a prospect Lott hadn't counted upon. Dole himself might even vote in the leadership race. His resignation doesn't take effect until June 11.
Whoever becomes the new Republican leader, he will matter: Even with Dole in the White House, this congressional team would be calling lots of the shots.
And if citizen Dole returns to Kansas at the end of the year, he will be joining the steady exodus from Congress of the Main Street, go-along to get-along crowd that Lott and Gingrich were so impatient with.
A sweet reward for a loyal, but mistrusted deputy.
Pub Date: 5/16/96