Nickles Keeps Open Option to Challenge Senate Leadership; Trent Lott Defends the Job He's done.(NATION)
Byline: Dave Boyer, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma is refusing to rule out a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, fueling speculation that he is working to gain the party's top spot after the November elections.
"It would be ridiculous to make Shermanesque statements," Mr. Nickles told reporters after CNN aired a report that he was lining up support among Republican senators and Senate candidates.
He was referring to the famous comment of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who ended speculation about a bid for the presidency by saying, "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve."
Mr. Nickles, the assistant minority leader, called the report that he was campaigning for the leader's post "hogwash." He said he is simply working as hard as he can to support Republican candidates.
But his flat refusal to rule out a challenge to Mr. Lott surprised even those who know him well, and it was viewed by Senate Republicans as another sign of how much is at stake as the Republican Party attempts to win back the majority this year.
"We're tired of the penalty box and we want to get out of it," said one Republican aide, referring to their minority status in the Senate.
Mr. Lott, of Mississippi, has received some of the blame for the Republicans' predicament. Republicans held a 55-45 majority in the Senate two years ago, but they lost five seats in the 2000 elections. Then last June, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate, 50-to-49-to-1.
There was published speculation early in 2001 and again last summer that Mr. Nickles would challenge Mr. Lott, but he did not. Some in the party viewed that as a sure sign that Mr. Nickles did not have the votes.
Mr. Lott defended his job performance last week, telling reporters at the Capitol, "I feel good about my relationship with the conference. I think we're working quite well together on the things that we believe in."
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said Mr. …