WASHINGTON (CNN) --Wounded by the controversy over his comments criticized by many as racially divisive, Sen. Trent Lott announced Friday he was stepping down as Republican leader in
"In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective January 6, 2003," Lott said in a statement.
"To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate," Lott said, indicating that he would not resign his seat from the upper house of Congress.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, emerged as the front-runner to replace Lott as Senate majority leader. Frist had announced his "likely" candidacy Thursday night, and support for him grew quickly.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of the strongest allies of Lott, said Friday he is endorsing Frist to replace Lott as Senate GOP leader. That move by McConnell, who had also been seen as a possible successor, makes it all but certain that Frist will have the support he needs to win the job
A physician from Tennessee who is a favorite of the White House, Frist issued a statement late Thursday saying several senators had approached him and asked him to seek the job.
Lott was elected majority leader in November, but his political standing has eroded in Washington because of the controversy surrounding his praise of Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for the presidency.
The remarks -- suggesting the nation would have been better off had Thurmond been elected -- drew a strong rebuke from, among others, President Bush, who called them "offensive" and "wrong."
The criticism of Lott grew after Bush's comments and despite the senator's many apologies.
"I have concluded that the current controversy has completely overshadowed our efforts to expand the American dream to all Americans," Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Missouri, said in a statement Friday, announcing his support for Frist.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee issued his own endorsement of Frist, as did John Warner of Virginia and several others.
"If Bill Frist is a candidate for majority leader, I'm for him," Alexander said in a statement. "He's my neighbor, my friend, my senior senator and one of our best national leaders." (Full story)
Warner: 'Bigger than friendship'
Warner, the veteran Virginia senator, has long been a friend of Lott's. But he was among the first of the GOP's 51 senators to call for a meeting of the party conference to consider whether to vote on a new leader. The meeting is set for January 6.
The stakes are much "bigger than friendship," Warner said, and the leadership battle is an issue "about what's best for the United States of America" and how best the GOP can "preserve the credibility of the United States Senate."
Before Lott's decision, only one GOP senator -- Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- had said publicly that Lott should step down.
Others, however, have been very critical of his comments, saying they have opened the GOP to unfair charges of racial bigotry.
Several Republicans and conservatives said the controversy threatened to undermine the Republican agenda -- and that of the White House -- in Congress next year.
Lott, who had apologized repeatedly for his comments, had picked up the public support of about nine Republican senators, including such senior figures as Alaska's Ted Stevens and Utah's Orrin Hatch. But most GOP senators kept quiet about the matter.
The White House stayed on the sidelines, refusing to publicly endorse the idea of replacing Lott -- or offering him much support. Warner denied the White House had been involved in persuading Frist to run or that he had been in contact with the White House over the issue.
"The White House will work with whoever it is that members of Congress deem appropriate to represent themselves," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday.
Former President Clinton lashed out at the GOP Wednesday, saying it was "pretty hypocritical" of Republicans to criticize Lott for stating publicly what he said the GOP does "on the back roads every day."