Trent -- fall from grace played out as a classic Washington snowball. It started small just over two weeks ago at first his comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday party barely attracted any attention.... See More
Trent -- fall from grace played out as a classic Washington snowball. It started small just over two weeks ago at first his comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday party barely attracted any attention. But the Senate's top Republican had suggested the country would have been better off with a segregationist. In the White House. And as the meaning of his words sunk in the -- -- picked up speed. Not only in the media which had mostly missed the original story but among senator to lots fellow Republicans. His belated attempts to apologize only seemed to make matters worse. But what gave the -- ball real velocity. Was the Republican party's own identity crisis on race. A new generation of leaders was trying to open the tent. And purge the party of its often racially divisive past. The bush White House to work behind the scenes to topple -- trying hard not to leave its fingerprints on the scene. So by this morning the -- -- had become an avalanche. And Trent Lott had no real choice but to get out of the way. Nightline correspondent Michel Martin begins our coverage tonight. And. For affirmative action and -- practice it. It was it seemed the political equivalent to of -- deathbed conversion with their. Mississippi senator Trent Lott in an interview Monday on black entertainment television I've made a mistake. And I announced it. I would vote now for Martin Luther King holiday. It was all part of what turned out to be -- toughest campaign a campaign to recover from this self inflicted wound. I want to say this about -- When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for it. We're proud. Words he uttered at a retirement party for former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond two weeks ago. The rest of the country -- followed our lead we wouldn't had all these problems over all these years either. After initially brushing aside complaints that his comments suggested a fondness for segregation. A central preoccupation of the Dixiecrat platform. Lott apologized repeatedly but not apparently effectively enough. By mid morning today it was all over. He issued a brief statement saying he would not seek to remain as majority leader although he would remain in the US senate that is totally unfounded. I think everything was blown out of proportion. Back in Mississippi where the electorate is one of the most racially polarized in the country some of his constituents were upset -- It's a sad sad day for our nation and -- we'll all. Truly powerful wonderful maintenance. It's all stepping down -- -- understanding. It's heartbreaking. But in Washington it was a different story I think was the apologies that allowed the -- to build and build and build and doomed. The -- was allowed -- interestingly enough in the conservative opinion media where many urged -- to go. Conservatives felt that. People -- -- think we're lot of -- And so -- a lot of them -- -- a lot of us I can say we're we're very out we're outraged state outraged never stopped being outraged. And ends that since that was the driving force -- Also got little help from most African American Republican and conservative activists. Black America's political action committee which supports conservative candidates publicly -- slot to resign. He crossed a line that. Very very few people can -- can cross again if you will make right. It was very clear to us that that was a serious breach and there -- irreparable breech I thought that that every man deserves a chance. Although -- sought advice from prominent conservative writer Shelby Steele. He did not follow it fully. My own. Intuition is that he was in denial for a -- about what the magnitude of what it hit him. And I think he thought that. That he didn't have to go as far as he really did have to ago and and capsules stringing that out and then finally became too late. Some -- key turning point in the drama came when President Bush -- not my chastising him publicly last week recent comments. By senator -- do not reflect the spirit of our country. -- -- -- -- and rightly so. Every day our nation was segregated it was a day that America. Erica was unfaithful to our founding ideals. It's. Terry Moran covers the White House for ABC news. News by issuing that public rebuke of lot the president effectively prevented the senators loyalists from characterizing the criticism of him as just. Partisan democratic attacks. And Press Secretary Ari -- -- tepid endorsement of lots leadership clinched the White House message. In private the president told his aides not to manipulate the situation from behind the scenes. Since he had already irrevocably shifted the ground under lots feet. In the senate the tide began to turn in earnest when fellow conservative Republican Don Nickles told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he questioned lots ability to read -- -- a week. But remained defiant. On the -- -- -- shipyard work. Theft and -- they've got fed up I had all my life I'm not talking now but the -- could be seen in the remarks of the congress' sole African American Republican JC watts. You know I accept his apology and I'm prepared to move on a few days later he said this. I would not put my family. My kids. -- you know my mind my friends. My party. Through what I think the senator's gonna have to go through. By the time the country's most popular and visible African American politician secretary of state Colin Powell. Offered this tepid response to the senator if it was all over but for the vote. We'll see how this plays out. Politically. Regret what he said. Disappointed what he said as he has. Tennessee moderate Bill Frist -- -- cautiously agreed to be considered for majority leader has rapidly piling up potential votes. This courtesy call to -- by Virginia's John Warner a senior member of the Republican caucus was a powerful message to Lott and his supporters that the fight. It was all but over. -- morning it was clear the senator Frist have the votes. By afternoon the Republican caucus was making plans to hold the leadership vote on Monday in an effort to put the whole mess behind them. And although some democratic and liberal groups spent the day disseminating information about trysts civil rights record an effort to tie him to lots problems. It seemed that the vote for Frist the Senate's only physician had staunch the bleeding among Republicans. For now. This is Michel Martin for Nightline in Washington.
This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.