Trent Lott, reaching out to Senate colleagues by telephone from Pascagoula, Miss., last Wednesday asked a Republican wise man what he could do to save his majority leadership. Only one thing, he was told: Get George W. Bush to publicly endorse you. That was impossible, because the president already had made a decision with far-ranging consequences.

After Lott's Strom Thurmond statement, erosion of support among GOP senators was fed by their perception that the White House wanted a change. Bush had ordered aides to say nothing for or against Lott. That had an effect on one fellow Deep South senator who publicly declared loyalty to Lott but told me "the president cut out the legs from under Trent." This senator privately declared Lott dead on Thursday, 24 hours before the senator from Mississippi quit.

As principal author of Lott's demise, Bush must now face its consequences: The limiting of his freedom in policy touching on race. He has to decide whether to approve Solicitor General Theodore Olson's proposal for U.S. intervention against the University of Michigan in the racial quota case before the Supreme Court. He has to decide whether to renominate U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, a friend and Mississippi Republican ally of Lott's, for the appellate bench. To go with Olson and Pickering would raise accusations of "racism."

The Lott affair burned off the remaining Republican glow from midterm election victories, but its effect transcends that. Democratic operatives dragged out the old chestnut of candidate Bush's 2000 visit to Bob Jones University, with spokesman Ari Fleischer harangued about it at Friday's White House briefing. The theme is that the GOP's Southern base, the bedrock of its national election victories, is an illegitimate legacy from racist Dixiecrats.

Once panicky conservatives had turned against Lott, the left muffled its personal criticism of the senator. Bill Clinton, in New York last Wednesday while attending an event for the European Travel Commission, signaled what was afoot. "From top to bottom," he said, Republicans support what Lott supports. "They've tried to suppress black voting," said the former president, "they've run on the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina. . . . So, I don't see what they're jumping on Trent Lott about."

Prior to Lott's fall, the left-wing People For the American Way released a study showing that his voting record on racially charged issues was identical to possible successors -- including the supposedly more moderate Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Indeed, the American Conservative Union rates the two as nearly identically conservative in lifetime voting records: Lott, 93 percent; Frist, 88 percent.

People For the American Way equates George W. Bush's record with Lott's, asserting: "It was correct for President Bush to criticize Lott's praise for Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. But those words will ring hollow if the administration and its congressional allies continue to promote policies that undermine the nation's ability to make good on the American promise of equality and opportunity for all." Thus, in failing to defend Lott, the president opened himself to remorseless attack.

Frist as the probable new majority leader may not defend well against this assault. Conservative foes of cloning legislation were exasperated by his equivocations as leader on this issue and fear the worst in how this relatively inexperienced senator will function as majority leader.

On Friday Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in a tardy and futile campaign for majority leader, described himself as candidate of the Senate and Frist as candidate of the White House. Indeed, as the Senate Republican campaign chairman in 2002, Frist functioned like a member of the White House staff.

If the president and the new majority leader are sensitized by attacks from the left, the cost of Lott's 17 seconds of joshing a centenarian may run high indeed. Republicans cannot be the nation's majority party without the solid South, and Democrats want to build on the Lott fiasco to undermine that base. Which way the White House goes on the University of Michigan court case and the Pickering nomination will provide two clues to the Lott affair's effect.

(c)2002, Creators Syndicate Inc.