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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Dead Man Is Running Strongly for U.S. Senate

October 27, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

He's gained in the polls steadily over the past two weeks, according to Republicans and Democrats alike.

He's now leading his opponent in some of the polls, and has closed the gap considerably in others.

He's been endorsed by a former U.S. senator from his home state, who called a news conference this week to pledge continued support.

Trouble is, he's dead.

The candidate was killed on Oct. 16, but he's still on the Nov. 7 ballot and seeming to pick up steam.

"Only in California," the wags said back in 1998 when Sherman Block remained a contender for L.A. County sheriff, even though he had the distinct disadvantage of no longer being alive.

This isn't nutty old California this time, though. This is the sensible show-me state of Missouri we're talking about here, which a week from Tuesday might very well elect a corpse to the Senate.

And you thought our presidential candidates seemed lifeless.

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Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, lost his life in a plane crash three weeks before election day.

A Democrat, he was running against incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, who has held that seat since 1994.

Ashcroft is still campaigning a little, but isn't sure against whom. The Democrats haven't formally proposed anyone else, and it's too late to pull Carnahan's name from the ballot.

In the meantime, some polls show Carnahan's lead to have increased since his death, and that Ashcroft's advantage in another poll has been reduced by more than half.

"A U.S. senator who can't beat a dead man doesn't belong in the U.S. Senate," contends Tom Eagleton, the former Missouri senator who once had 15 minutes of fame as a vice-presidential nominee.

Eagleton knows about elections and the reasons for dropping out of them. He did so in 1972, after reports that he'd once undergone electroshock therapy for depression. George McGovern had to go with Sargent Shriver on the Democratic ticket instead.

Ordinarily, as Missouri goes, so goes the nation.

In every national election but one since 1948 (when a Missourian was elected president), the man who won that state's popular vote was the ultimate winner. A majority in Missouri voted for Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, regardless of party affiliations.

Only in 1956 did Missouri side with the loser, preferring Adlai Stevenson to President Dwight Eisenhower . . . by a puny 3,974 votes.

But, keeping the old phrase "stubborn as a Missouri mule" in mind, it'll be interesting to see not only whether Missourians give their 11 electoral votes to a Republican or a Democrat, but how the donkey party's Senate candidate fares.

Acting Gov. Roger Wilson now says he'll appoint Carnahan's widow, Jean, to the seat if her husband wins.

Jean Carnahan isn't yet saying if she's willing to become another Mary Bono, widow of Sonny.

Republican state leaders, meanwhile, are saying a Mel Carnahan victory might be unconstitutional. A statement was issued by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, however, declaring that to its knowledge, nothing "would prevent Acting Gov. Wilson from informing the voters whom he would appoint to serve as senator of Missouri."

As for Ashcroft, a former governor of Missouri himself, he's suddenly running against a ghost.

"I don't know who my opponent is," the senator said Wednesday, "or if I have an opponent."

Now he knows how Lee Baca must have felt in '98, when his opponent for L.A. County sheriff passed away. Sherm Block's supporters were urged not to let a little thing like that stand in their way.

Baca won, but what a downer, defeating a candidate who couldn't even concede.

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With a dead man running, what are you supposed to say? "Vote for me--I'm the one breathing"?

If you're Sen. Ashcroft you might as well, since the late Gov. Carnahan's supporters have just passed out new campaign buttons reading: "I'm Still With Mel."

Democrats are in effect saying that anybody they come up with later is right for Missouri. They can hand-pick any freshman senator they like, like something out of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

A dozen days before the election, nobody there was even sure if Mrs. Carnahan wants to go to Washington.

Missouri is our 16th-largest state. If Democrats there have a qualified candidate for the Senate, its voters have a right to say: "Oh, yeah? Show me."

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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