In Senate race, no overt appeals to Carnahan sympathy

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Scott Charton ~ The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missourians were shocked and sorrowful about the loss of Gov. Mel Carnahan, his son and an aide in a plane crash two years ago next week. Those emotions boosted the unprecedented election of Carnahan as U.S. senator almost three weeks after his death.

Carnahan's widow led her family in a dignified public march of mourning around the statehouse, then wept as the president paid tribute and 10,000 visitors stood in hushed reverence. These images received saturation television coverage -- priceless, unimpeded, positive advertising for the suddenly shining legacy of Mel Carnahan and the just-as-sudden prominence of Jean Carnahan.

"The entire state is grieving," Republican Sen. John Ashcroft said a few days before losing the election, the first time a dead person won a Senate seat.

But the moving images of 2000 won't appear in the widow's campaign ads as Mrs. Carnahan, appointed to the seat won by her late husband, seeks election in her own right, her consultant says.

"The senator wants Missouri to move on," said consultant Marc Farinella, who managed Mel Carnahan's campaigns for governor and senator and now works for Jean Carnahan's campaign. "There are no plans to use any of the images from that week or that memorial service in advertising. We do not believe that would be appropriate."

Sympathy may have moved voters in 2000, but Mrs. Carnahan and Republican challenger Jim Talent say they want the Nov. 5 contest to turn on issues and records, not sentiment or memories.

"Many people say they have a hard time not thinking about what happened when they look at me, and they're very supportive of what I'm doing, the fact that I'm carrying on," Mrs. Carnahan said March 11 when she filed for election. "But right now, I've got to put forth my record. That's what I've got to stand on and run on."

Overt campaign reminders of the loss of Mel Carnahan, their son Roger and aide Chris Sifford would raise issues of taste and sensitivity, and could backfire if voters think Mrs. Carnahan is relying on sympathy rather than standing by her record.

"My heart just goes out to Jean Carnahan. That must have been a horrible thing to go through. But I also have sympathy for the wife of (the late St. Louis Cardinal) Darrell Kile and for the families of the Sept. 11 victims. My sympathy for Jean Carnahan is separate from how I will vote," said April Smith, 26, a self-described independent from Columbia.

Mike McLellan, 26, of St. Louis, recalls watching the emotional Mel Carnahan memorial service on television, capping a week of nonstop news coverage of the crash and its aftermath.

"And Jean is standing in Mel Carnahan's place. But I tend to vote Democratic, so it's more important to me how she has voted, and keeping the Senate in the hands of the Democrats," he said. "I'm over the death. I'm about the issues now."

Elizabeth Bettin, 68, selecting fresh vegetables at the Columbia Farmer's Market, said she voted for Mel Carnahan posthumously but is reserving her decision on this year's election "until I can hear about issues rather than all these negative TV ads."

She is inclined to support Mrs. Carnahan, "and I do feel sorry for her. But I also have to hold her accountable for the negative ads, just as I do Mr. Talent, even though their staffs may make the decisions."

With the passage of two years since the Oct. 16 crash, Mrs. Carnahan has come to be viewed not as an untouchable icon but as a politician with a record. Her backers say that's fine.

"I don't think anybody could ever forget Mel Carnahan and the tremendous governor he was and the legacy he left," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said in a telephone interview. "But I do believe over the course of the last two years, Jean Carnahan has proved her mettle as a senator."

John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, was frustrated, bewildered and hesitant to criticize Mrs. Carnahan during and after the 2000 election.

But respectful deference to Mrs. Carnahan evaporated once she joined 41 other senators in voting against Ashcroft's successful confirmation as attorney general on Feb. 1, 2001. "Now there is a record, and Jean Carnahan has aligned herself with the most liberal elements inside and outside of the Democratic Party," Hancock said soon after her vote against Ashcroft.

The Ashcroft vote was a turning point in increased criticism for the rookie lawmaker who had never held elective office. Criticism has continued despite more bad luck for Mrs. Carnahan: her family home at Rolla was destroyed by fire.

And there have been constant reminders of Mel Carnahan and the crash outside the campaign realm, including dedications during the past two years of schools, public buildings, a Governor's Mansion garden and even a flagpole in Sikeston in the late governor's memory. In June, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report about the fatal crash. And in July, Cessna Aircraft Co. settled a lawsuit by the Carnahan family for $1.6 million.

Talent's campaign quizzed private focus groups about a possible sympathy factor, and in public forums Talent has been asked whether he is effectively running against the ghost of Mel Carnahan.

In an interview with the AP, the former four-term congressman said sympathy for Mrs. Carnahan still exists, "but I don't know that it's translating into a vote.

"The reason is, I think people are asking themselves, what does Missouri need in the future?" Talent said. "They're not looking at the past."

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