Frist most likely successor to Lott as Senate majority leader

After Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., announced he would step down as majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., quickly emerged as the leading candidate to replace him.

Less than two months after helping the GOP win control of the Senate, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee is now expected to replace Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott as majority leader when the 108th Congress begins.

After Lott announced Friday that he was stepping down from his leadership position, Frist quickly solidified his support among Republicans, who were eager to avoid what could have been a bitter intraparty squabble.

"I think it's important to rally around one person fast," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "I hope we can have a united Conference in support of his bid, so that we can begin to move forward," added Sen. Olympia Snowe, R- Maine, while announcing her support for Frist. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said this afternoon he hoped the selection of Frist would be by acclamation.

Even before Lott announced his decision, nearly a dozen Republicans had said publicly and privately that they would back Frist. "If Bill Frist is a candidate for majority leader, I'm for him," said Sen.-elect Lamar Alexander, Frist's home state colleague.

Within an hour after Lott's announcement, the number of Frist backers swelled to more than two dozen and it became clear that he has substantial support among Republicans. But Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was making calls and testing the waters. "Sen. Santorum might run," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

If no challenge develops, Frist officially would take over for Lott during a Republican Conference meeting Jan. 6, although Domenici suggested that meeting be moved up to between Christmas and New Year's to give the new majority leader more time to prepare for the upcoming session.

Although Frist did not announce his candidacy until late Thursday, many Republicans saw the outgoing National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman as the inevitable beneficiary of the controversy surrounding Lott's comments earlier this month about retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign.

Besides Santorum, incoming Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and outgoing Minority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., had been considered contenders, but Friday both endorsed Frist.

Frist, riding high after engineering the GOP's Election Day victories, quickly became the heir apparent. "I was one of many who encouraged Bill Frist to run for majority leader and I support him 100 percent," Nickles, a long time Lott rival, said Friday.

Frist, who has the backing of the White House, will not be GOP leader for long-he has promised to step down from the Senate when his second term expires in 2006.