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Missouri Senate race offers history and national significance

November 02, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With Democrats viewing Missouri as a chance to trim the GOP's slim Senate majority, the state's Senate race between a popular two-term governor and an incumbent was already among the nation's most-watched.

That was before Gov. Mel Carnahan's plane crashed on Oct. 16, making him the first dead man ever on a U.S. Senate ballot and turning even more of the nation's attention toward the Show-Me-State.

Since the crash, Gov. Roger Wilson, who became governor after the wreck, announced his intention to appoint Mel Carnahan's widow, Jean Caranahan, should her late husband win on election day. She said she would accept the appointment.

Those developments have sent Republicans rushing to Sen. John Ashcroft's side, arguing that Mel Carnahan doesn't meet Constitutional standards to run for the Senate and questioning whether Wilson can forecast who he intends to appoint.

Also looming is the Senate's Constitutional power over its own membership, meaning the chamber could elect not to seat Jean Carnahan. In 1985, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to seat an incumbent congressman who narrowly lost his election in 1985.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch tracking poll has put Jean Carnahan consistently ahead of Ashcroft -- but barely, by a thinning margin and within the poll's margin of error.

Ashcroft, a conservative one-term senator from Springfield, has stepped up his campaign dramatically since the crash, both criss-crossing the state and flooding the airwaves with ads.

A former touring gospel singer and songwriter, Ashcroft, 58, is the son of a prominent Assemblies of God preacher. In the Senate, Missouri's junior senator has sought legislation using religious groups to treat social problems.

He has also fought for hefty cuts in the federal government's size, proposing a $4 trillion tax cut. That cut, offered in 1988 when Ashcroft was flirting with a White House bid, has been a target of Democratic criticism this election season.

In the race's only debate, Mel Carnahan charged the tax break would jeopardize social security and revive the days of deficit spending. Ashcroft said he no longer seeks the cut.

Ashcroft's ads boast that he sponsored legislation providing a social security lockbox preventing the government from spending money meant for the entitlement program.

One of the Senate's most conservative members, Ashcroft has fought to cut spending for the National Endowment for the Arts, cancel funds for physician-assisted suicide, and prevent Medicaid from paying for abortions.

He opposed a tax increase on tobacco used to pay for anti-smoking programs.

Mel Carnahan, under state law, remains on the ballot. If he wins, Wilson will appoint Jean Carnahan to replace him in the Senate seat once held by Harry Truman.

The former first lady has never held public office, but Democrats are quick to say she, as a partner to Mel Carnahan for 46 years, is not new to politics.

She has given speeches detailing her admiration for vocal women in politics and saying the first lady is in an ideal position to spotlight important issues.

As first lady, she has championed numerous children's issues. With her husband, she developed a program where letters are sent to new parents reminding them to immunize their children.

In what was a rare level of involvement for a first lady, Jean Carnahan helped author and lobbied in favor of 1998 legislation that gave public schools $56 million annually to start early childhood daycare programs.

She testified on behalf of the bill, which eventually became law, in front of legislative committees.

The Democratic Party said Jean Carahan won't run a "traditional" campaign, given the circumstances. A commercial begun Thursday centers on the common views shared by the married couple and said a vote for Mel Carnahan can still be a winning vote.

The party's executive director, Roy Temple, said Jean and Mel Carnahan hold the same views on many issues. Any such differences, he said, would be variations of "intensity."

He said Jean Carnahan supports using the surplus to bolster Social Security and providing a prescription drug coverage for the elderly under the umbrella of Medicare.

The historic circumstances surrounding this race have placed both campaigns in awkward positions. The Carnahan for Senate campaign said they are planning day-to-day and are unsure if Jean will make any public appearances.

Ashcroft has been criticized recently on the trail after giving a political speech to a third grade class. This week, his campaign booted a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter from the campaign's bus, charging the paper was biased to the left.

Lauren Shepherd and Kate Miller contributed to this report


John Ashcroft

AGE: 58


FAMILY: wife, Janet, three children

EDUCATION: A.B. Yale Univ., University of Chicago, J.D.

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: State Auditor, 1973-75; Attorney General, 1976-85;

Governor, 1985-1993; U.S. Senator, 1994-present.

Jean Carnahan

AGE: 66

OCCUPATION: former first lady, author

FAMILY: three children, two grandchildren

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in Business and Public Administration George

Washington University in D.C.

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Never elected to public office.