Things had been looking up for Republicans who want their party to seem more welcoming to minorities.
Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, emblems of a GOP generation with roots in the segregated South, are retiring. President Bush has continued to work hard to appeal to Latino voters. And he has been preaching racial tolerance with new eloquence since last year's terrorist attacks.
Then along comes Senate GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who in a single unguarded moment ripped open racial divisions many Republicans had hoped to leave behind.
Lott's comments at Thurmond's 100th birthday party Dec. 5 praising the senator's 1948 presidential campaign, which was explicitly based on support for segregation, caused Republicans to cringe not just out of embarrassment but because they feared the remarks would undercut the party's efforts to shed its image as an all-white club.
"It certainly does not enhance or assist Republican efforts to broaden the base," Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska said.
As Lott's remarks were publicized widely, he apologized repeatedly, saying he didn't intend them as an endorsement of segregation. At a Friday news conference in Mississippi, he offered his most extensive explanation, saying he was "winging it" with impromptu comments at Thurmond's party and misspoke.
"In celebrating [Thurmond's] life, I did not mean to suggest in any way that his segregationist views of 50 years ago were justified or right," Lott said. "Segregation was immoral then and it is wrong now."
But critics in both parties say that, despite his contrition, Lott's initial remarks indicate an insensitivity to the South's legacy of institutionalized racism and the painful struggle to overcome it.
The controversy's effects have been intensified because it struck many as so anachronistic in contemporary politics. While racism remains alive and well -- and in some communities, a potent political force -- analysts say it is increasingly rare for national politicians to make comments that can be seen as racist.
"Most of the contemporary Republicans, starting with President Bush as the role model, bend over backward not to go anywhere near the terrain Trent Lott was evoking," said Earl Black, an expert on Southern politics at Rice University in Houston.
"What Lott is doing is pretty rare these days for Republican candidates."
The emotional reaction to Lott's comments -- by Democrats and Republican critics alike -- underscores how much race remains a festering sore in the country's political life.
"There's no longer the old blatant racism of the old Southern demagogue, but you cannot say race has evaporated as a factor in Southern politics," said University of North Carolina political analyst Ferrel Guillory. "Lott has reminded us that we've got to be mindful of our history, and there's still some history to overcome."
The governor's contest in Georgia this year was a reminder of the political potency of racial appeals. One factor that figured in the surprising defeat of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes was a backlash against his efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
Outside the South, racial tensions also affected the Michigan gubernatorial race. Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, was criticized for supporting reparations for slavery -- and accused of favoritism toward Detroit, a predominantly black city. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People responded that such attacks smacked of race-baiting.
Still, none of this year's campaigns was as overtly pitched to racial themes as those conducted by many Southern Republicans in the 1960s and 1970s. That strategy rejuvenated the GOP in a region where it had been virtually nonexistent for almost a century because of its identification as "the party of Lincoln" and where Democratic candidates had promoted the politics of racism.
In 1990, Helms' campaign against a black Democrat ran an ad playing to white resentment of blacks' advancement through affirmative action. It featured a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter. But that type of message increasingly has become the exception.
"Times are different and moderate middle-class voters don't want their politicians to be like the Old South," Guillory said.
In the years since the Helms ad, racial themes have been invoked more obliquely. For example, even in debates about the Confederate flag, Black said, proponents tend to talk about the emblem as a form of Southern heritage, not of explicit racial symbolism.
But Democrats say such strategies represent an effort by Republicans to have it both ways -- to signal sympathy with Southern conservatives without alienating Northern and suburban moderates who are crucial to their governing coalition.
"Many Southern Republicans have played a coy wink-and-nod game on racial issues, eschewing the racist past but making it clear in a thousand ways to white voters that they weren't that happy about having to toe the politically correct line on civil rights," said a statement concerning the Lott controversy from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Even Bush, who has made a bigger effort to court minority voters than most Republicans at the presidential level, has been embarrassed in the course of trying to appeal to the disparate parts of the GOP base. During the 2000 presidential primaries, he sought Southern conservative votes by speaking at Bob Jones University in South Carolina -- an institution that had banned interracial dating. Under criticism for the appearance, Bush was reduced to saying, "I don't like being called a bigot."
Bush has sprinkled his Cabinet and the top ranks of his administration with minorities.
White House political director Ken Mehlman said he believes Bush's effort to make the GOP more welcoming to minorities is paying off -- at least among Latinos. He said many GOP candidates increased their share of the Latino vote in last month's midterm elections.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said there is no strong evidence of a real Latino swing to the GOP. But, he added, "There is a long-term struggle for the loyalty of Latinos, and it is a battle where we have not yet achieved final victory."
Some Republicans say they believe the political damage inflicted by the Lott controversy will be limited because Bush has far more power than the Senate Republican leader in defining the face of the party.
"The public perception of the Republican Party is going to be driven by President Bush and not Sen. Lott," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster based in Atlanta. "President Bush, especially since 9/11, has been very aggressive in promoting tolerance of racial and religious minorities, and that will be the lasting impression of Republicans in the early part of this decade."