Among Americans familiar with the controversial comments Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made at fellow Senator Strom Thurmond’s recent birthday party, almost half think he should step down from his leadership position.

In a FOX News poll, conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corporation, 49 percent of those familiar with the statements Lott made while praising retiring Sen. Thurmond think he should resign from his post as majority leader, and 41 percent disagree. 

While Democrats are much more likely to think Lott should give up his leadership position, over one-third of Republicans think he should as well (65 percent and 35 percent respectively).  Sixty-two percent of nonwhites think Lott should step down compared to 47 percent of whites.

Even so, more people think the controversy is something “exaggerated by Democrats” (47 percent) than think it is a “real issue” (42 percent).

News coverage of Lott’s comments has been non-stop since the December 5 birthday party.  Almost 8 in 10 Americans say they are familiar with the situation, in which Lott appeared to endorse the segregationist platform Thurmond ran on in his 1948 presidential bid. 

Senator Lott’s favorable rating stands at 19 percent, 44 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the majority leader, 20 percent have no opinion and 17 percent say they have never heard of Lott.

At the party where Lott made his questionable comments, Senator Thurmond was celebrating his 100th birthday.  In an Associated Press interview about Lott's troubles, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura questioned why Thurmond was still serving in the U.S. Senate at that age. 

Most Americans agree and think retiring before becoming a centenarian is a good idea.  About two-thirds of the public (65 percent) support the idea of a mandatory retirement age for members of Congress and, of those, a majority suggests the retirement age should be before age 80.

Polling was conducted by telephone December 17-18, 2002 in the evenings. The sample is 900 registered voters nationwide with a margin of error of ± 3 percentage points. Results are of registered voters, unless otherwise noted.

I'm going to read the names of some people. Please tell me whether you have a generally favorable or unfavorable opinion of each. If you've never heard of one, please just say so. (RANDOMIZE)
SCALE: 1. Favorable 2. Unfavorable 3. (Not sure) 4. Never heard of

1. Trent Lott

  Favorable Unfavorable Can't say Never heard
17-18 Dec 02 19% 44 20 17
15-16 July 98 18% 18 15 49
6-7 May 98 15% 13 20 52
5-6 Mar 97 17% 10 18 55

2. Have you heard or read about the controversy concerning the comments Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party?

1. Yes 79%
2. No 18
3. (Not sure) 3

3. (If yes Q2) Do you think Senator Lott should step down from his leadership role in the Senate because of the remarks he made?

1. Yes 49%
2. No 41
3. (Not sure) 10

4. (If yes Q2) Do you think the controversy about Senator Lott's comments is a real issue or is it just something exaggerated by Democrats to hurt Republicans?

1. Real issue 42%
2. Exaggerated controversy 47
3. (Not sure) 11

5. Strom Thurmond is retiring from the Senate at 100 years of age. Do you think Congress should set a mandatory retirement age?

1. Yes 65%
2. No 30
3. (Not sure) 5

6. (If yes Q5) At what age do you think Senators and Representatives should have to retire?

1. Under 65 5%
2. 65 to 69 14
3. 70 to 74 26
4. 75 to 79 27
5. 80 or older 19
6. (Not sure/Refused) 9