Slightly more than half of all Americans believe incoming Senate majority leader Trent Lott should step down from his leadership post for making racially insensitive remarks two weeks ago at a birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Fifty-one percent of those interviewed--including two out of three minorities--said Lott should not lead Senate Republicans when the new Congress convenes next month. Forty-one percent said he should continue to lead Senate Republicans.

Those findings underscore the divisiveness of Lott's remarks and the potential they have to undermine efforts by the GOP to make inroads with minorities as well as among voters who don't closely identify with either political party.

Even within his own party, Lott's remarks drew fire.

"We do not have any place in this country for racial discrimination," said Shirley Rowland, 65, a lifelong Republican who voted for President Bush and lives in Shannon, Ill. "I think he needs to step down from his leadership position. What he said was wrong and he should just take his lumps."

A total of 1,209 randomly selected adults were interviewed December 12-15. Margin of sampling error for the overall results was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The starkly partisan tone just beneath the surface of the Lott debate was apparent in these survey results. Nearly two-thirds of all Democrats said he should leave his GOP post while a majority of Republicans--56 percent--said Lott should continue to lead Senate Republicans. Political independents were split: 52 percent said he should go while 43 percent wanted him to stay.

"He definitely should step down; I don't approve of the things that he said," said Lonna Gilbert, 31, a blood lab technician and political independent who lives in Danville, Ky. "I am a Christian; I don't believe in discrimination, The things he said concern me. I question his ability to make good choices, if that's an example of what he chooses to say."

Republican strategists worry that Lott's remarks will further tarnish the already dull image of the GOP among minorities. According to the poll, two-thirds of all minorities and eight in 10 blacks said Lott should step down. At their most benign, the furor over Lott's comments highlight the longstanding problem that the Republican Party has had convincing skeptical minority groups that the GOP enthusiastically and unequivocally supports equal rights for all.

Barely half of all minorities interviewed -- 52 percent -- said the Republican Party is committed to equal opportunity for minorities, a view shared by only three in 10 blacks. In contrast, three in four minorities and two-thirds of all blacks say the Democratic Party is committed to equal opportunity.

Many whites also question the GOP's commitment to equal rights: While eight in 10 whites agree that the Democrats are committed, only two in three offered a similar endorsement of the Republican Party.

Interviews with survey participants suggest that attitudes toward Lott remain tentative and in flux. Some Republicans who first thought Lott should leave his leadership position now are having second thoughts. And while few Republicans defended what Lott said, many questioned whether quitting his leadership position was too steep a price to pay for poorly chosen words for which he has since apologized.

"I first thought he should step down," said Cheryl Bollinger, 46, a Republican and a substitute teacher who lives in Peach Bottom, Pa. "Now I'm not totally sure; I've heard his apologies. He is guilty of speaking without thinking."

Other Republicans wouldn't mind terribly if he left -- but not because of what he said at Sen. Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

"I would hate to see him step down, but he wasn't that great a majority leader anyhow," said Brian Rust, 51, a realtor and a Republican who lives in Moneta, Va. "No doubt he made a mistake. But those guys are under the lights so much. One little misquote and they get a lot of aggravation. He apologized. I don't know what more he could do."

Others wonder if Democrats, aided by the media, were trying to hound Lott out of his party office in order to embarrass the party after its stunning victories last November.

"He made comments that may have been appropriate back in the 40s. But hey, that's 50 years ago, gang," Bill Baldwin, 56, who does income taxes for an accounting service in Sanborn, N.Y. But Baldwin, a Republican-leaning independent, doesn't think Lott should step down. "I think the Democrats and the media are trying to make it into something--taking a little ember and making it into a big fire."

Others say neither political party has a monopoly on bigotry.

"I believe the Republican Party is committed to minorities," said John McBride, 53, a banker in Seattle, Wash., and self-described political independent. "That doesn't mean that everyone in the party is. Let's not be naive: What people do privately and publicly are two different things. And that happens in both parties."