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An old Southern rivalry is being played out on a new, national stage as Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran square off to replace Sen. Bob Dole as Senate majority leader.

"It's encouraging enough for me to declare my candidacy," Cochran said Thursday of his early support among Senate colleagues. He told Fox-TV his campaigning mainly is "conversations one-on-one."Earlier, Cochran declined to handicap the race. "We all started off at square one today, dealing with the reality of an unusual election," he said. However it turns out, he added, "I'm not going to have any hard feelings, and I hope he won't either."

"I'm in pretty good shape," the 54-year-old Lott said Wednesday as he swiftly moved to fill the void left by Dole's decision to resign the Senate to devote full time to his presidential campaign. Asked whether he has a majority of Republicans lined up in support of his candidacy, Lott smiled and replied, "I hope so."

Republicans who have known both men say they have been rivals for much of their tenure in Congress together, which began with their election to the House in 1973. Just last year, for example, Lott leapfrogged over the more senior Cochran to win election as whip, the No. 2 job in the caucus.

One other Republican is a potential entrant into the majority leader's race, with the election to be held at some undetermined date in June. Dole's resignation is expected to take effect by June 11.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico talked with colleagues to gauge his chances in the race, according to aides. He declined to speak to reporters.

"The brass ring only comes around so often," Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams said Wednesday, as the jockeying began.

Another potential entrant in the race bowed out during the day. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma announced he would run for whip - the job Lott now holds.

The majority leader's post is immensely powerful, a type of first among equals.

The occupant of the job decides what legislation comes to the floor. In the current political environment, Dole's successor will also play a major role in crafting legislation that would be sent to President Clinton in the run-up to the fall elections.

The perks are substantial, as well - a large staff, a car and driver and a suite of offices just down the hall from the Senate floor with a glorious view of the historic Washington Mall, a working fireplace for cold days and a private, outdoor balcony for the warm ones.

Lott, 54, first elected to the Senate in 1988, has long been considered an automatic contender for the job when it became vacant.

He toppled Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., Dole's longtime deputy, in a contested election in January 1995, on the strength of support from younger, more conservative senators.

Many Republicans said that if elected, Lott would bring a more combative style to the post than Dole employed in relation to the Democrats. His ascension would also give House Speaker Newt Gingrich an ideological soulmate and close associate with whom to work across the Capitol rotunda.

"Trent Lott was my mentor at one time when he served in the House," Gingrich said Wednesday.

Cochran, 58, who has a more courtly style than Lott, won election to the Senate in 1978, the first Republican from his state to do so in a century. Twelve years later, he was so popular Democrats didn't run an opponent. He is expected to sweep to a fourth term this fall.

Inside the Senate, he has risen through seniority to an influential position on the Appropriations Committee, where he tends to his state's agricultural and other interests. At the same time, his leadership ambitions have long been evident in his tenure as chairman of the GOP caucus, or conference.