U.S. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a close ally of President Bush, said Thursday he will probably seek to supplant Trent Lott as Senate Republican leader if he determines that most of his colleagues will support him.
In a statement, Frist said several senators had approached him Thursday and asked him to seek the job. He said he agreed to let them gauge support from all 51 GOP senators who will serve in the new Congress that convenes next month.
"I indicated to them that if it is clear that a majority of the Republican caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role," said Frist, who is riding high in his colleaguesÕ estimation after overseeing the GOPÕs recapture of the Senate as head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2002 Frist has been frequently rumored as a likely successor to Vice President Dick Cheney if Cheney for any reason did not serve further.
The Tennessee senator is also known to be interested in a presidential race of his own in 2008.
Lott, 61, has said he believes he has enough support from his colleagues to retain his job and has vowed to fight for it. The Mississippian has been under fire since Dec. 5, when he expressed regret that segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond was defeated in 1948. Lott has delivered a series of apologies for his comments.
Frist, 50 and in his second Senate term, had spent the last several days making noncommittal statements about Lott. But he had been identified as one who was unusually critical of Lott during a conference call of Republican senators focusing on the Lott crisis late last week.
Earlier Thursday, GOP aides speaking on condition of anonymity said Frist was sounding out senators by telephone and was considering making the race. GOP senators plan to meet Jan. 6 to decide who will lead them in the new Congress, which convenes the next day.
"Bill didn't tell me he was in this thing yet," said one senator who recently has spoken to Frist. "He's explaining what's out there, and I'm glad he is. We need to have an internal discussion among our colleagues about our options," the senator said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One aide had said that Frist would consider running for the leadership post if colleagues asked him to do so "for the sake of the Senate as an institution or the long-term agenda of the Republican Party."
In a sign that Frist might be building momentum, a Republican aide close to No. 2 Senate Republican Don Nickles of Oklahoma said Nickles, previously reported as interested in succeeding Lott, would likely support a race by Frist. It was Nickles who last weekend became the first Senate Republican to call for a new leadership by GOD senators.
Since then, the Republican Senate caucus has arranged to meet on the leadership issue in Washington on January 6th.