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CAMPAIGN 2000

Missouri Widow Boosts Democrats' Chances

Senate: Jean Carnahan agrees to serve a two-year term if voters elect her husband, who died in plane crash Oct. 16. His campaign with Ashcroft was bitter.

October 31, 2000|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Boosting Democrats' hopes of retaking the Senate this fall, the widow of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan announced Monday that she will serve in her late husband's stead if voters choose him over his Republican rival, incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft.

"With the support of my family and an abiding faith in a loving God, I've decided to do what I think Mel would want us to do--to keep the cause alive," Jean Carnahan said, two weeks to the day after her husband, a son and a campaign aide were killed in a plane crash. "Should the people elect my husband, I pledge to take our common dreams to the United States Senate."

The silver-haired 66-year-old--who never has held public office--would serve a two-year appointment offered by her husband's successor, Gov. Roger Wilson. She could then seek to retain the seat in a regular election.

Mel Carnahan and Ashcroft were locked in one of the tightest--and most acrimonious--races in the country when Carnahan's plane went down in heavy rains Oct. 16.

But it was too close to the election to remove his name from the ballot. And with that seat being among a half-dozen that Democrats view as crucial in their effort to wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans, state party officials began to lobby Jean Carnahan.

Speaking from the back porch at the family farmhouse in Rolla, Mo., Halloween decorations rustling in the light breeze, Jean Carnahan said she had met with family and friends--and comforted herself by reading notes of sympathy--before deciding she would accept such an appointment.

"Now the choice is up to the people of Missouri," she said. "Mel always trusted them. And I do too."

Ashcroft, who has resumed campaigning after halting his efforts for more than a week after the accident, spoke only obliquely Monday about the latest turn in the race. "Mrs. Carnahan has always been kind to me," he told the Associated Press. "She's written and said things that are very kind about me. This has been an unusual campaign, and it's been a tragic campaign, a campaign filled with sorrow."

The race between the two men was rough--so rough that many observers say each harbored a strong personal dislike for the other, although both candidates denied it. And it was close, a dead heat month after month, in poll after poll.

The race is still close. But after two weeks of mourning, intense media coverage and a televised memorial service that brought President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and a host of other Democratic leaders to the state, it appears that if either candidate has an edge, it is the one now deceased.

A Zogby International poll conducted over the weekend for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis television station KMOV had Carnahan at 47.2% and Ashcroft at 45.4%, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. When participants in the poll were told of the plan to appoint Jean Carnahan if her late husband won, Mel Carnahan's lead increased, 49.4% to 44.3%.

All of which leaves Ashcroft in a remarkably difficult position, many analysts agree.

"This is going to sound insensitive, but the Democrats may be benefiting from this sense of grieving," said Martha Kropf, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "This campaign, up until now, has been very negative, [and] Ashcroft obviously can't be negative toward Mrs. Carnahan--that would be seen as very insensitive."

Ashcroft, Kropf said, "is just going to have to push his experience--because that's one thing she doesn't have."

Then again, Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) never had held public office until she succeeded her famous husband, Sonny, after his death in a 1998 skiing accident. Nor had Sen. Rose McConnell Long (D-La.) when she assumed the seat of her assassinated husband, Huey, in 1936.

Seven U.S. senators and 37 U.S. representatives have been congressional widows.

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