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U.S. Senate Democratic majority cast in doubt after governor's death

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- The death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in a plane crash last night poses a possible threat to Democratic Party hopes to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, according to CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.


Carnahan -- a Democrat -- had been engaged in one of the tightest U.S. Senate races in the nation, mounting a tough challenge to incumbent GOP Sen. John Ashcroft.

According to Schneider, a Carnahan victory was crucial for his party.

"Democrats need a gain of five Senate seats to win a majority," Schneider said. "Those gains are likely to come in eight states where Republicans are defending vulnerable Senate seats. One of those is Missouri."

"Recent polls have shown the race to be too close to call," CNN Political Unit Executive Producer Beth Fouhy said.

Carnahan, 66, his son Roger and a top campaign adviser were killed early Tuesday when a small plane they were riding in crashed about 30 miles south of St. Louis, Missouri, the site of Tuesday evening's presidential debate.

Tuesday morning, debate officials decided the event would go on as planned despite the tragedy.

Senate majority 'almost impossible'

A senior aide to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Tuesday it is now "almost impossible" for Democrats to make the gain of five seats to regain the majority they lost in 1994.

Carnahan's death also carries uncertain implications for the U.S. presidential race, which, according to national polls, is in a statistical tie between the two major party candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

The presidential race is also tight in Missouri, and Carnahan's untimely death could adversely affect turnout of Democratic voters November 7, hurting Gore's chances for victory.

Acting governor named

Under the terms of the Missouri Constitution, Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, a Democrat, was named acting governor by the state's Supreme Court early Tuesday.

Wilson will be sworn in as governor once an official determination has been made that the governor is dead -- in this case, once they recover his body.

As the state's 52nd governor, Wilson will serve the remainder of Carnahan's term, which expires January 8, 2001.

On that day, the winner of the upcoming gubernatorial election will be sworn in as Wilson's successor.

Despite the crash, Carnahan's name will remain on the ballot as the Democratic candidate because a deadline for changes had passed.

That could mean Carnahan's replacement as a Democratic candidate would have to run as a write-in -- a difficult task in the best of circumstances.

On Election Day, if Carnahan receives more votes than Ashcroft, that would create a vacant seat in the Senate when Ashcroft's term ends January 3, just five days before Wilson will be replaced by Missouri's governor-elect.

Wilson, as acting governor, would then likely appoint a Democrat to occupy the Senate seat until Election Day 2002, when a special election would be held.

It's not clear whether the winner in 2002 would take office immediately or wait until the traditional swearing-in date in January.

For his part, Ashcroft has called off all advertising and campaign activities. The campaign issued a statement offering condolences.

'Inflammatory' campaign

But in the midst of campaigning, the two candidates were said to have a troubled relationship.

There were "a lot of bad feelings between the two candidates, stemming from the days when Carnahan served as lieutenant governor while Ashcroft was governor," Schneider said.

Schneider described the campaign as often inflammatory, "where the contenders have traded charges of racism, and ethical lapses and misrepresentation of each other's records," said Schneider.

Carnahan was widely regarded as a man of action, a moderate, and a pragmatic, with a strong record as a crime-fighter, tax-cutter and education reformer.

President Clinton, in the Middle East, called Carnahan's widow Jean early Tuesday morning to express condolences.

Gore and wife Tipper released a written statement saying, "We are deeply saddened by this tragedy ... Governor Carnahan represented the best in public service. More than this, Mel was a good friend."

In his written statement, Gore's opponent -- the Texas governor -- said he was "fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know Governor Carnahan through our work as governors."

"Mel was a thoughtful, distinguished man who was dedicated to quality education and excellence in public service," Bush said in his statement.

In the past, Clinton has praised Carnahan's welfare-to-work plan, and the Democratic governor also pushed through a children's health insurance plan with coverage wider than all but a few other states.

Killed along with Carnahan were his son Randy and a former chief of staff who was one of his top campaign advisers, Chris Sifford, 36. There were no survivors.

Political family

Carnahan, a lawyer from Rolla, Missouri, was governor of Missouri for eight years. He had been in St. Louis for a fund-raiser Monday and was scheduled to attend a similar event at New Madrid, Missouri Monday evening. He had planned to return home to Jefferson City later in the evening.

Carnahan grew up in a political family. His father A.S.J. Carnahan served as a U.S. congressman from 1945 through 1961, with a two-year hiatus in the 1940s, and was later appointed U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone.

After serving in the Air Force and attending law school, Carnahan was elected a municipal judge in 1960 at the age of 26, followed by his election to the legislature two years later, where he helped secure passage of the state's civil rights law. He was elected state treasurer in 1980. And in 1988, he was elected lieutenant governor under then-governor Ashcroft.

The crash was an eerie reminder of an accident more than two decades ago in which Democratic congressman Jerry Litton was killed along with his family in a plane crash in the northwest part of the state on the evening he won the Missouri's Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

CNN National Correspondent Bob Franken, CNN Congressional Correspondent Chris Black, CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider and Reuters contributed to this report.


Tuesday, October 17, 2000


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