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Politics halt while state mourns

October 18, 2000
By: Katy Scott and John Sheridan
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Three days this close to an election can be an eternity to a campaign, but since Gov. Mel Carnahan's death Monday night, Missouri politics have virtually come to a halt.

Carnahan's death left many Missourians and state politicians in shock. But, with less than a month until the elections, many also are left wondering what will happen in the highly contested U.S. Senate race between Carnahan, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. John Ashcroft.

However, Democrats throughout the state have refused to comment on who will replace Carnahan as the Democratic senatorial hopeful.

Roy Temple, executive director of the Missouri Democratic party, said neither the "Missouri Democratic Party nor anyone else is prepared to talk politics. There will come a time to talk about politics, but that time is not today."

Gov. Roger Wilson, who was sworn in early Wednesday morning, also said political speculation will and should be put on hold.

"I understand it will go on, but it is not on the radar screen for this week," Wilson said.

Because the election is just weeks away and ballots have already been printed, Carnahan will remain on the senatorial ballot. If he is elected, the governor, Democrat Wilson, will name a replacement.

Political pundits have suggested that Jean Carnahan, Carnahan's wife, may be that replacement. And there is a history of widows taking their husbands' places in political bodies in the United States.

Congresswoman Mary Bono took the seat of her husband, Sonny Bono, after his death in 1998. In 1996, Missourian Jo Ann Emerson was elected to Congress in a special election to fill the unexpired term of her deceased husband.

Temple said official consideration for a successor will begin after Carnahan's funeral, which is scheduled for this weekend.

Republicans also left partisanship out of their statements this week, with the Missouri Republican Party encouraging GOP candidates to cease campaign activities following the governor's death, Missouri GOP executive director John Hancock said.

"This is not a time for politics, it's a time for mourning," he said. "It's really time to put partisan politics aside. We're all Missourians."

But secretary of state candidate Matt Blunt chose not to pull his ads which he said contain only positive messages.

"I don't see any reason to not continue discussing issues," Blunt said.

And while most state officials are suspending politics, at least one national pundit says the show must go on.

Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry said in spite of the tragedy, it is "time to go on with business, it is part of the healing process."

In the wake of Carnahan's death, however, both major-party presidential candidates have vowed to pull campaign ads in Missouri.

But some politicians have still criticized Vice President Al Gore, saying he is using the death for his own political gain. Rep. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles, said Gore's opening statements at Tuesday's debate in St. Louis were opportunistic.

"I am not going to fault him for this issue anymore than any other disingenuous statement he has made in this campaign, so I am not going to fault him for shameless opportunism or damn close to it," Dolan said.

Gore's campaign said that was not the case and pointed out that the vice president visited with the governor's staff as well as with Jean Carnahan privately to express his condolences.

"I don't think that criticism is coming from the people who know all the facts," said Kim Rubey, a Gore spokeswoman. "Gore canceled all of his campaign appearances in the state. He pulled all of his campaign ads in the state."

Tucker Eskew, a spokesman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said Bush also has removed all ads from Missouri media "out of respect for Gov. Carnahan's family and the people of Missouri."