WASHINGTON - Trent Lott rejected calls to resign as Senate Republican leader yesterday, apologizing again for comments he made that seemed to back segregation and delivering the most strenuous denunciation of racism of his career.
Lott spoke at a nationally televised news conference from his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss. With a full-fledged public appearance, the senator hoped to defuse the outcry and retain his leadership post.
"Segregation," Lott said, "is a stain on our nation's soul."
He said he was seeking "forbearance and forgiveness" for the remarks he made last week at a 100th birthday celebration for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond in which Lott fondly recalled Thurmond's 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign.
Yesterday, Lott said: "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them."
He said he had accepted an offer from Robert L. Johnson, chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television, to hold a one-hour event next week to discuss "my hopes and dreams for the people in this state and this country."
Next month, when Republicans take control of the Senate, Lott is scheduled to become majority leader. But he must first survive a flurry of calls - from civil rights groups, two Democratic senators and numerous other critics - to step down as his party's Senate leader.
Some Republicans worry that their party stands to lose if Lott survives, because opponents would be able to brand him a symbol of the Republicans' approach to minorities and racial issues. That would likely hurt the party's efforts to reach out to black voters.
The uneasiness among Republicans leaves open the possibility that Lott could be forced out in coming days.
"There are people who would like to see him sail into the sunset," one top Republican leadership aide said. "It's growing."
Though Lott has not lost the support of the 50 other Senate Republicans, strategists have begun speculating about who might take over if he steps aside or is forced out.
The tide could turn quickly against Lott, they said, if President Bush, who has publicly rebuked him, or his fellow Republicans conclude that the damage is beyond repair.
The departing Republican whip, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, is among the top names, as is Bill Frist of Tennessee, a key architect of his party's gains last month in the closely divided Senate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is to replace Nickles as the party whip, could also be in the running, strategists said.
After his scolding of Lott on Thursday, Bush refrained from further criticism of the Republican leader yesterday.
Senior Senate Democrats, meantime, are considering a resolution to censure Lott. The Congressional Black Caucus renewed its earlier call for a censure and said in a statement:
"It is offensive and morally reprehensible that a public official with such a record would be permitted by his party to serve as majority leader of the United States Senate."
At last week's celebration, Lott said Mississippi was proud to have supported Thurmond's 1948 "Dixiecrat" presidential candidacy.
"If the rest of the country had followed our lead," Lott added, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Thurmond's campaign had opposed "social intermingling of the races."
Lott interrupted a vacation in Key West, Fla., yesterday to hold the news conference. He took the cue from some Republican senators who had urged him to give a full explanation of the remarks and his record on civil rights issues, which has also come under harsh scrutiny.
"In celebrating his life, I did not mean to suggest in any way that [Thurmond's] segregationist views of 50 years ago were justified or right," Lott said. "Segregation was wrong and immoral then, and it is now."
Lott did not discuss the meaning of his comment that "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if Thurmond had been elected president.
Two Democratic senators - John Kerry of Massachusetts, a presidential aspirant, and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin - have called on Lott to resign his leadership post.
Speaking before Lott's news conference, other Democrats suggested that he should consider stepping aside.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said Lott's comments "demonstrate a glaring insensitivity to the pain African-Americans suffered as a result of segregation and discrimination."
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore's largest black church, wrote to Mikulski this week, urging her to push for the resignation or removal of Lott as Senate Republican leader.
But one senator, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a Republican turned independent, rallied to Lott's defense, saying his words were "wrong" but suggesting they were unintentional.
Lott is "a man of honor and good conscience," Jeffords said.
During the half-hour news conference, Lott apologized for the third time, saying: "I take full responsibility for my remarks. I only hope that people will find it in their heart to forgive me for this grievous mistake."
He said of his comments at Thurmond's celebration: "I was winging it. I was too much into the moment."
Still, for many Republicans, the remarks were a disturbing reminder of what many of them have long believed about Lott: that he is a weak leader and a poor advocate. Seen in the light of the latest incident, those shortcomings have become a threat to his leadership.
Some conservative commentators, including William J. Bennett and Jack F. Kemp, both former Cabinet secretaries, have sharply criticized Lott.
The conservative magazine National Review called Lott's remarks "a spectacular confirmation" that he is "a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader."
"He has been a poor leader of Senate Republicans," the editorial said, "and the latest gaffe will only further erode his standing and his ability to lead."
McConnell issued a statement of support for Lott after the news conference, saying the leader had "reaffirmed his commitment to making sure that every American has a fair and equal opportunity in life."
"I believe the American people will accept his apology and want us now to move forward together," McConnell said.
The civil rights group People for the American Way said Lott's apology "misses the point" and called for his ouster.
"Lott doesn't get the major point of the past week," the group said. "The American people aren't simply angry about his recent comments; they're appalled by the accumulating evidence of his public record over several decades."
Lott's announcement that he will address the issue again next week could create a deadline of sorts for deciding his fate as majority leader. Republicans will be watching over the next few days to gauge the public response to yesterday's news conference.
Democratic strategists, for their part, are pondering the possibility that they might fare better if Lott remained as a weakened Senate leader.
"He would not enjoy strong support in his own caucus," one Democratic aide said. "Even before this current controversy, it's not like he was a strong leader."
Several Republicans are scheduled to appear on television news talk shows tomorrow to defend Lott. They include departing Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, who is black and a member of the House Republican leadership; Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana; Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama; and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a leading moderate.
Watts is scheduled to debate Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was a noted civil rights leader and is a senior member of the Black Caucus.