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Politics seethes below surface of tribute speeches

October 20, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - When Mel Carnahan's daughter, Robin, closed her remembrance speech Friday, she assured her father the family "won't let the fire die out."

Every morning, she said, the late governor would start a fire and before he left, he would tell the kids to keep it going.

But to many, her comment was about more than fireplaces. It hinted that the family wouldn't let Carnahan's political efforts wither away.

One of the unresolved issues after Carnahan's death is the question of who will replace the governor in the U.S. Senate race against GOP Sen. John Ashcroft. Democrats have said all week that the time to discuss that concern would come after the funeral.

State Republican Executive Director John Hancock said he considers the Senate race over. But many Democrats are not so sure.

Names popping up as possible surrogates for Carnahan -- he will remain on the ballot -- include first lady Jean Carnahan and State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

If Carnahan wins the race, the governor will appoint someone to serve for him. Many mourners said they plan to still vote for Carnahan, but some said they will wait to see who will be named.

The first lady is considered, by some, the powerhouse. Recent history is full of examples of politician's widows winning races. One need look no farther than Missouri's own congressional delegation, where U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, won as a write-in candidate after her husband died in office.

"The only caveat I would heed before voting for Jean Carnahan is I would want to be assured it was her idea, and not forced on her," said Maria Hines, a state worker from Jefferson City.

Many speeches at Friday's memorial service for Carnahan were ripe with political undertones. President Clinton and others repeatedly talked about politics being a noble service.

Former Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., said Carnahan knew if good people didn't enter politics then government would be less effective.

At times, the speakers seemed to be urging Jean Carnahan into the race.

"We grew up talking about politics around the kitchen table," Robin Carnahan said. "Mom always said that was a genetic flaw that came from Dad's side of the family, our intense interest in politics. But I got to tell you, Mom, I never believed that."

Gov. Roger Wilson broke up when he talked about Jean Carnahan's resolve.

"The finest first lady in our state's history and one of the strongest women I have ever known," he said. The comment received a standing ovation from the largely Democratic crowd.

Reflecting the theme that politics runs in the Carnahan blood, Wilson also talked at some length about Carnahan's father, who served seven terms in Congress before becoming an ambassador to Sierra Leone.