Trent Lott is at the bottom of a deep hole, and he is digging like crazy. Every time the Dixiecrat cheerleader denies his Confederate tendencies, he comes out looking a little more like his hero – Jefferson Davis – in his “oops” days following the Civil War.

Lott’s appearance on Black Entertainment Television the other day was so painfully inept that the BET commentators who reviewed the Mississippi senator’s pathetic “some of my best friends are …” performance tried to cut him some slack. He was at least trying to say the right thing, they suggested, even if Lott’s attempts to paint himself as a champion of affirmative action were so tortured that none could actually make a case for allowing him to remain as Senate majority leader in the new Congress.

If the commentators were gentle, Lott’s fellow Republicans were not.

The knives are being sharpened, and some of the nastiest thugs in Washington are getting ready to hunt Lott down.

After George W. Bush signaled that he would not defend Lott, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles took the first swipe at the majority leader by calling for Senate Republicans to vote anew on whether Lott should lead them. Nickles did not declare himself a candidate to replace Lott, but he has long coveted the majority leader position.

The outgoing assistant majority leader, Nickles has always believed he would be a better boss of Senate Republicans than Lott. And there is no question that when they were handing out political smarts, Nickles got a much larger share than Mississippi’s gift to the Senate. He is also, by every measure, a more aggressive and partisan conservative than Lott.

Nickles’ objection to Lott never had anything to do with the majority leader’s segregationist sentiments. They voted together against the 1983 legislation to create a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They voted together against expanding federal hate crimes protections in 2000. They voted together against moves to expand the ability of minorities to use the courts to fight job discrimination. (Indeed, on civil rights issues, Nickles’ voting record is generally rated as bad or worse than Lott’s. While the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights give both men similarly dismal ratings, the National Hispanic Leadership Coalition’s most recent survey gave Lott a 27 percent approval rating, while Nickles scored 0.)

If anything, Nickles is more of a social conservative than Lott, whose pragmatism and willingness to work with Republican moderates such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter has long troubled the fundamentalist right. Richard Viguerie, whose direct-mail fund-raising machine powers much of the right’s political activism, says of Nickles: “He’s got that fire that Lott seems to have lost.”

Nickles champions the religious right agenda in Congress – promoting schemes to display the Ten Commandments in the public schools and backing every effort to limit access to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. In 1996, he was a leading sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act and other legislation designed to prevent gay and lesbian couples from receiving the same benefits and legal protections as heterosexual couples.

As insensitive as Lott may be on race issues, Nickles is even more insensitive when it comes to concerns of women and gays and lesbians. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Nickles’ record suggested, correctly, that “in many of those battles (on social issues), he found himself to the right of Mr. Lott.”

In fairness, these are close calls. The American Conservative Union gives Nickles a lifetime “right voting” rating of 96, to 93 for Lott. But, by a reasonable margin, the John Birch Society identifies Nickles as a senator who is consistently more to their liking than Lott. The latest vote analysis by the Birchers gave Nickles one of the group’s highest approval ratings in Congress – 90 percent right wing. Lott could only muster an 80 percent right wing rating.

With the famously tight-lipped Bush administration suddenly leaking criticism of Lott on a daily basis, there is no question that Nickles will succeed in forcing a new leadership vote. And it is getting harder to imagine how Lott will survive. That does not mean that Nickles will grab the top job – a pair of somewhat smoother conservatives, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and Tennessee’s Bill Frist (a White House favorite) are also interested in the position. But if the choice does come down to Lott and Nickles – a rock and a hard-ass – Republicans will have a difficult time making the case that trading a doltish and intolerant Mississippian for a smart and intolerant Oklahoman represents progress.