Suddenly, a Pall Over the Third Debate

  • Share
  • Read Later

Missouri's Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed Monday night in an air crash

As if the pressure to be presidential weren't heavy enough for their third and final presidential debate Tuesday night, George W. Bush and Al Gore are now facing off in a state that has just lost a favorite son.

Missouri governor Mel Carnahan is assumed dead after a plane carrying him and a top adviser and piloted by Carnahan's son Randy crashed Monday night in the rainy Missouri woods about 30 miles south of St. Louis. Carnahan was on the way to a campaign stop in New Madrid, Mo., in the midst of a hotly contested race to unseat conservative Republican senator John Ashcroft in a race considered crucial to the future balance of the Senate. (Ashcroft's campaign immediately pulled all its advertising in deference to the tragedy.)

Missouri's lieutenant governor, Roger B. Wilson, assumed Carnahan's duties at the statehouse when the news hit. If in a spasm of grief Missouri voters elect Carnahan (the deadline for changing the ballot passed on Friday), Wilson, a Democrat, will have the power to appoint a two-year replacement. Wilson, by the way, is not in the contest to succeed Carnahan, having already decided to drop out of politics to become an investment banker.

Meanwhile, Gore and Bush will have to wage what could be the decisive battle of their own race without treading on the beloved Carnahan's ghost. There will be extreme pressure for Bush to keep his smirking ebullience (which made a stealth appearance in the forgotten second half of Round Two) in check, and for Gore to find a way to be both Alpha and dignified, a trick he hasn't yet mastered.

President Clinton and Gore have both called the governor's wife to express condolences. But Tuesday night Gore and Bush (who, of course, as a governor is a peer of Carnahan's) will have to make those condolences during their opening statements to a "town hall" audience in a state of mourning.

For months that have seemed like years, Gore and Bush have dueled on the surplus, on foreign policy, on the environment and guns and hate and Washington and Texas. Tonight, a national television audience will get to see how Gore and Bush, as president, might go about dealing with tragedy, and thus be measured against the present occupier of the Oval Office, someone who is a master of this particular art.