JEFFERSON CITY - The state Republican Party's director touted John Ashcroft's experience edge over the first lady Monday after Jean Carnahan announced she would accept an appointment to the U.S. Senate if her late husband wins Missouri's Senate race.
"This election is about experience and leadership in the Senate," said the director, John Hancock, referring to a long list of elected offices Ashcroft, the incumbent, has held.
Jean Carnahan said at a news conference at the family's idyllic farm near Rolla that she wanted "to keep the cause alive" by accepting an appointment to serve in the U.S. Senate in place of Mel Carnahan.
The late governor, who died in a plane crash while campaigning, remains on the ballot. If he wins the race over Ashcroft, Gov. Roger Wilson intends to appoint Jean Carnahan in his stead.
"This race was never about one person," said Jean Carnahan while flanked by her surviving sons and daughter. "It was about giving a voice in the Senate to the everyday working families of Missouri."
Meanwhile, Ashcroft, campaigning in Springfield, said Jean Carnahan has praised him in the past.
"I'm very pleased that Jean Carnahan has been so kind to me in commending with her kind words my record as governor and my time as attorney general," he told KSMU radio.
When asked about Ashcroft's remark, Jean Carnahan seemed surprised.
"I think I have been totally focused on my husband's campaign," she said. "I don't recall working on Ashcroft's campaign."
Ashcroft has stepped up his campaigning since Mel Carnahan's death, and some of his events have bewildered those he visited.
The director of a Jefferson City food bank said she was surprised at how short the senator's stop was and regretted that he couldn't tour their clinic as his aides had discussed.
A St. Louis County elementary school's superintendent said Ashcroft was supposed to give a civics lesson there but ended up giving a political speech.
MU political science professor Rick Hardy said Ashcroft's missteps reflect the difficult position he's been placed in.
"Ashcroft is in a political straitjacket," said Hardy, who twice has sought a congressional seat as a Republican. "It's very difficult for Ashcroft to turn either way. If he campaigns, people will say he's being disrespectful. If he doesn't campaign, he'll be criticized by his supporters for not doing everything he can to win.
"The only thing he can do, is say "here's my record, here's what I've done." And don't mention the opponent."
Jean Carnahan said she will not campaign in a "traditional" way, but that she would seek "to inform people that a vote for Mel Carnahan is a legal vote."
Roy Temple, the state Democratic Party's executive director, said the campaign staff wasn't sure how to proceed.
"The reality is, there's no real benchmark to follow, so the steps will have to be made up as we go along," he said. Jean Carnahan "understands the people's need to get to know her and the need to let voters know they can still vote for Mel Carnahan."
Party officials and strategists from Mel Carnahan's Senate campaign were planning to discuss their approach at the farm Monday after the news conference.
Although the first lady has never held public office, Temple said she has been "a full partner in Mel Carnahan's public life. She shares his vision."
He said Jean Carnahan similarly supports protecting social security and providing prescruiption drug help under medicare. Any differences between Jean and Mel Carnahan on the issues, he said, were probably differences of "intensity" and not philosophical.
Republicans have raised political questions about whether votes for Mel Carnahan should still count, whether Gov. Wilson has can legally forecast who he couls appoint in Mel Carnahan's place, and whether Jean Carnahan should have to run as a write-in candidate.
Those charges have led Democrats to defend their approach and to site past examples of congressmen who have died in office or while campaigning.
But nothing exactly like this race has ever occurred before.
The U.S. Senate Historian said this is the first time in history a dead man was listed on the ballot as a Senate candidate.
Katy Scott and John Sheridan contributed to this report.