Strom Thurmond's legacy is tricky and dangerous not just for Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who put his leadership of Senate Republicans at risk by over-praising the former segregationist at Thurmond's recent 100th birthday celebration.

The entire Republican Party is wrestling with the tangle of triumph and shame that the aged South Caro

linian represents. In large part, the GOP's fortunes hang on its ability to hold onto the South that Thurmond helped win, while expunging the race politics he employed along the way.

Nothing has contributed more to the rise of Republican power over the past 40 years than the GOP's success in breaking the Democratic lock on the South, for without a solid South there would be no way to aspire to become the nation's majority power. Thurmond, the first prominent southern official to switch parties, epitomizes that breakthrough.

But racial discrimination was the first and crucial wedge in opening up the South. Here, too, Thurmond was the pioneer. In 1948, furious over the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, Thurmond, then South Carolina's governor, ran for president on an openly segregationist platform. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches," Thurmond thundered.

He won four southern states, ending seven decades of Democratic sweeps in the region. One of the four was Mississippi, as Lott proudly noted at the birthday party.

Lifelong Democrats, resentful of federal meddling in the culture of Jim Crow, gave Thurmond his votes. He "took away a lot of Democratic support" and "used racial issues to accomplish it," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black. "It never came back."

Thurmond returned to the Democratic Party after the 1948 campaign, but in 1964 he switched and became a Republican, helping Barry Goldwater carry the Deep South during the presidential race and beginning a transformation of southern politics that continues today.

True, some segregationist Democrats remained with their party, gradually moderating their views or sinking from sight. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the senior Senate Democrat, expressed views every bit as racist as Thurmond's in the 1940s, but Byrd never felt compelled to switch labels over the issue.

With time, the southern complaint against the Democrats has been refined into a more sophisticated, race-neutral position, cast as resistance to cultural changes and government intrusions of many varieties -- from loosened sexual mores to high taxes. Republicans have also tapped into the region's patriotism and strong support of the military.

"Yesterday's issues [meaning blunt racial appeals] are not what animates the Republican Party today," said pollster Whit Ayres.

Here, too, Thurmond played a role. Always an astute observer of the political winds, Thurmond gave up on segregation in the 1970s, in favor of more broadly appealing conservative values.

But race issues have never entirely vanished. Many Republican political strategists acknowledge that an unbroken line can be drawn from Thurmond's white supremacist campaign of 1948 through the more subtle, but notorious, television advertisement used by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1990 to defeat his black challenger, Harvey Gantt. The ad featured a white man crumpling a letter informing him that he lost out on a job because of affirmative action.

The line continues, by some estimates, all the way to today's debates over flying the Confederate flag. David Beasley was driven from office as governor of South Carolina in 1998, after one term in office, because his effort to confront the issue of the Confederate flag fractured his conservative, GOP coalition. And in Georgia this year, Republican Sonny Perdue used the flag issue in his victorious campaign against Gov. Roy Barnes (D).

Lott's own political biography tracks the party's history. He long ago gave up his overt racism -- he worked, for example, to prevent the integrations. But his critics see the race issue at work more subtly in Lott's votes against extending the Voting Rights Act and creating a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Such votes are frequently cited by Lott's enemies as evidence that he never really changed his views.

Such critics believe Lott was trying to signal his true feelings on Dec. 5 when, under the guise of flattering an old man, he said that the United States "wouldn't have had all these problems over the years" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.

One leading Republican strategist said the worst gaffes are the ones that "reinforce existing negative impressions that broad groups of voters have" -- such as the impression that the Republican Party is soft on bigotry.

Lott's remarks "snowballed," he said, because "there is a perception in some segments of the population that Republicans have not always been completely open to the [black] community."

The race prejudice that fueled Thurmond's Dixiecrat rebellion was denounced last week by President Bush, by Lott and by other Republican leaders as an "immoral" blot on the soul of the nation. It has also become bad politics, outraging black voters and repelling all but a dwindling number of white voters.

"The fact is the vast majority of white voters . . . want a Republican Party that reaches out to African Americans," said one GOP strategist anguished by Lott's paean to Thurmond's 1948 campaign.

The old Confederacy has been transformed over the past generation. A mostly impoverished, rural region, dotted with low-tech, low-wage industry, has flourished along with the rest of the Sun Belt. Millions of northerners migrated into the sprawling suburbs of cities such as Orlando, Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte. Blacks, whites and Latinos work side by side in high-tech luxury automobile factories in South Carolina and Alabama.

As a result, many political scientists believe, the decisive voters of the future are not nostalgic, Dixie-whistling former Democrats. They are generic, migratory moderates. "The modern Republican voter in the South," Ayres explained, "is defined by the same things that make suburban voters Republicans throughout the country: preference for limited government, lower taxes, good schools."

This suburban influx, echoed Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, "has transformed the politics of the region as much or more than the movement of conservative Democrats" in the civil rights backlash.

The newcomers "hold extremely progressive views on issues of race relations," and the GOP cannot protect and build on its gains without their votes, Reed said.

Lott and Bush symbolize the two wings of the southern GOP -- the first emerging from the segregationist past; the second the son of a Yankee migrant who moved to the Sunbelt to make his fortune and stayed to build a Republican Party.

Since his first race for governor of Texas in 1994, Bush has made it his cause to ferry the GOP safely from its racially tainted recent past to a "compassionate conservative" future. His 2000 presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia was a smiling parade of Republicans of every hue, and his administration includes blacks in more prominent roles than any in the nation's history.

Bush's determination to reach minority voters has rippled down the river of Republicans, into the state legislatures and city councils, and party strategists believe that the payoff was beginning to show in last month's strong Republican showing at the polls.

"We were not at the point where we were going to get black voters excited for Republicans," said one GOP leader, "but clearly we were making it hard to get black voters excited against Republicans." A more tolerant image for the party also helps persuade the large numbers of independent voters who don't like mean, divisive, exclusionary politics.

"But it's two steps forward and one step back," this person continued, "and Lott's taken us one step back."

Said another Republican analyst: "Bush was moving us" until Lott opened his mouth. "That's the frustrating thing. This is a setback."

Democrats regard Republican claims of progress on racial issues with cynicism. They believe Republicans talk about reaching out to minorities while running campaigns designed to keep the black vote as low as possible.

Bush's rhetoric, they argue, outpaces his administration's efforts to embrace policies that would do the most to help blacks.

Even Republicans, in the wake of Lott's comments, fear that a rerun of the 2000 convention tableaus risks a backlash from swing voters. "It looks like a Hollywood-produced effort" without real action to back it up, said one party strategist. "It won't pass the smell test."

Which is why Senate Republicans and White House insiders are now wrestling with Lott's fate. If he is forced out, it would be a further sign of the importance the party places on updating its image on racial matters.

But even if Lott hangs on, last week may be another milestone in the Southern odyssey of the GOP. Thirty years ago, North Carolina elected, in Helms, a Republican well known for defending the idea that the constitution guaranteed the right of states to enforce racial separation. Twenty years ago, a Republican administration defended the right of private college in the South to maintain racial segregation on campus.

Last week, Republicans agreed that segregation was not just a "discarded" policy, as Lott initially suggested when his flattery of Thurmond got him into trouble. It was, Bush said, wrong from the beginning: "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals." By week's end, Lott profusely agreed.

"It's a different world," said one prominent GOP leader from the South.

"That's why Lott's [initial] statement was so shocking. It represents what was -- not what is."

Mississippi bard William Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." Last week, the Republican Party learned how true that is -- and how burdensome it can be.