ST. LOUIS - The death in a plane crash of Gov. Mel Carnahan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. John Ashcroft, has not only shocked Missouri but has also dealt a severe blow to the Democrats' hopes of recapturing Senate control.
Carnahan, a popular two-term governor, died at age 66 Monday night when the plane piloted by his 44- year-old son, Randy, crashed en route to a campaign fund-raiser. A senior political adviser to Carnahan, Chris Sifford, 37, was also killed.
Carnahan was locked in a tight race with Ashcroft, a Republican seeking re-election to a second term, and a Carnahan victory was considered crucial to the Democratic drive to gain the five seats required to take over the Senate. Republicans hold a 54-46 edge in the Senate.
It is too late to remove Carnahan's name from the Nov. 7 ballot. If his name garners the most votes on Election Day, Lt. Gov. Roger B. Wilson, a Democrat who was sworn in yesterday as acting governor, would appoint someone to the seat. A special election would be held in 2002 for the remainder of the six-year Senate term.
But Ashcroft, who immediately suspended campaign activities, is now expected to win. A write-in Democratic candidate is possible, but Democratic sources here said one isn't expected to be named with three weeks left until the election.
Wilson will serve as governor until January. The new governor will be determined in another close race Nov. 7 between the Democratic state treasurer, Bob Holden, and Rep. James M. Talent, a Republican.
News of Carnahan's death triggered discussions about whether last night's presidential debate in St. Louis should be postponed or canceled. But the Presidential Commission on Debates, in consultation with the campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, decided to proceed.
The governor's wife, Jean Carnahan, said she supported that decision. "Because my husband cherished our democracy and its expression, he would very much want the debate scheduled for tonight to go on," she said.
Gore said Carnahan, in every office he held, "helped improve the lives of the people of Missouri in countless ways.
"As a two-term governor, Mel addressed the challenges that Missouri's families face," Gore said. "He enacted far-reaching education reforms, was a national leader on health care and worked to make the state's streets and neighborhoods safer."
Bush, who said he knew Carnahan as a fellow governor, called him "a thoughtful, distinguished man who was dedicated to quality education and excellence in public service."
President Clinton, while at the Middle East summit in Egypt, called Jean Carnahan to express condolences. Flags were ordered lowered to half-staff at state buildings in Missouri.
The death in a plane crash of a U.S. Senate nominee in the midst of a campaign was not new for Missouri. In 1976, Rep. Jerry Litton, a Democrat, had just scored an upset victory in the state's Senate primary and was flying to a victory celebration in Kansas City when he and his family died in an air crash.
Litton was replaced on the Democratic ticket by one of the primary losers, former Gov. Warren E. Hearnes. The Republican nominee, John C. Danforth, who was then state attorney general, defeated him for the Senate seat.
Carnahan was engaged in a tough, negative campaign with Ashcroft when his plane went down in a wooded area about 30 miles south of St. Louis, apparently the result of a mechanical failure. Like his son Randy, the operator of a small charter plane company, the governor was a licensed pilot. Together, they often flew small planes to political events in rural areas not served by commercial aircraft.
In an interview hours before his plane took off for a campaign event in New Madrid, in the southeastern corner of the state, Carnahan was asked whether he would rather have run against Ashcroft without a presidential campaign being conducted in Missouri at the same time.
"I think maybe ultimately it will help," he said. "It certainly puts it more in the shadow of that race sometimes. But on the other hand, there's a lot of attention to this race - the sitting governor running against the junior senator and former governor. That got the interest from the time of the announcement" of his candidacy.
Asked what he thought the effect of the Gore-Bush race would be on his contest, Carnahan said, "I'm probably too close to it to know. I've generally thought the presidential race in Missouri is close and our race could go either way. If it [Gore-Bush] were to go 5 percent or more one way or the other, it might take this race with it. I know of no one who thinks the presidential race will have that kind of margin, so I really think we can go our separate ways."
There are parallels between the presidential contest and the one between Carnahan and Ashcroft. For example, the Republican senator, like the Republican presidential nominee, Bush, had proposed a huge tax cut. And Carnahan, like the Democratic nominee, Gore, had attacked it as excessive and as imperiling the Social Security and Medicare systems.
As a 2000 presidential hopeful who dropped out early to fight for his Senate seat, Ashcroft had called for a $4 trillion tax cut and a virtual lid on discretionary spending, a cut Carnahan described as more than three times Bush's proposal. Ashcroft said in a debate Sunday night that he had proposed it "when I was running for something else" and that he was no longer proposing such a tax cut.
Ashcroft, Carnahan said in the interview, "is very artful at the spin and trying to reinvent himself. And that has been, of course, the game that he's played. He's amassed this very, very ultra-conservative record in the Senate, and yet in the months before election here he's tried to run on Democratic issues and sort of forget about his past.
"That's my challenge - to show people the kind of record he has amassed and who he really is. I'm doing that by discussing his proposal for the $4 trillion tax cut."
In nearly eight years in office, Carnahan imposed new academic standards and raised state taxes by $315 million in 1993 to shrink classes, boost teacher training and buy classroom computers. The move paid off when Carnahan was re-elected by a landslide in 1996.
In the unlikely event that Carnahan's name garners a majority on Election Day, there is no obvious choice for Wilson to appoint to fill the seat until 2002, Democratic officials in Missouri said. Earliest speculation includes Jean Carnahan; their oldest surviving son, Russ, who is seeking a seat in the state legislature; Holden if he loses the race for governor; and Rep. Ike Skelton, a popular conservative Democrat.
Ashcroft's campaign said yesterday that it would suspend campaign operations indefinitely "out of respect for Carnahan and his family."
"This is a time for unity and common purpose in our state," Ashcroft said in a statement.
"We, as a state and nation, join together to mourn the loss of these men."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.