Defining Moment for Senate Leader for Trent Lott, Clinton Trial Could Be a Sticky Mess, or a Way Toelevate His Stature

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The presidential impeachment drive that has cost Republicans, ironically, two House leaders has now arrived squarely on the desk of Senate majority leader Trent Lott, posing the ambitious Mississippi politician the test of a career.

With polls showing GOP popularity falling, some analysts say the best Senator Lott can hope for is to get through overseeing the impeachment trial without damaging his or his party's reputation.

Indeed, the scandal originally expected to devastate only the Clinton presidency "is sort of like a tar baby," says Marvin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, who tracks Lott's career. "Anyone who touches it is going to get stained." Yet others speculate that Lott, a well-coiffed Capitol Hill veteran who is believed to harbor his own presidential aspirations, could turn the sticky task into an opportunity to prove a leadership talent so far seen as lacking in his Senate tenure. "There are occasions when stature is made and perceptions can be changed," says a Senate Democratic aide. 'Walking a tightrope' As Senate Republicans meet today to hammer out a plan for conducting the first impeachment trial in 130 years, experts agree that Lott, the point man for the controversial and arcane proceeding, has an unenviable job. "Obviously, you are walking a tightrope," says GOP strategist Frank Luntz. Specifically, Lott must seek a way to finesse the divide between two groups: Senate and House GOP conservatives and their pro- impeachment constituents, who are demanding a full trial for President Clinton; and Senate moderates and a broader public favoring a short trial and censure. Already, Lott is struggling to gain conservative backing for a bipartisan plan for an abbreviated trial. The plan calls for a brief presentation of the prosecution case and White House defense, followed by a quick vote on whether a full trial is warranted. If two-thirds of senators vote no, the trial would end. The outcome of closed-door party meetings today will offer the first clear signal whether Lott will be able to muster a widely acceptable way out of this legal and political box. Yet Lott's political background also holds clues as to how he will tackle the job - and whether he can succeed. With a blue-collar upbringing as the son of shipyard worker in the Mississippi gulf town of Pascagoula, Lott began his career as a Democrat. His first job after law school was as an administrative aide to Rep. William Colmer (D). Despite his reputation today as a hard-edged conservative, these Southern Democrat roots have given him a distinct bent for deal- making. "He's a conciliator," says James Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Western Washington University. Lott is known for having friendships with Democratic colleagues, and has a solid working relationship with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. …