Missouri's Mournful Bugle Call

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Some governors who have been elected to the Senate have found it a disappointing experience. One day you're a chief executive; next you're a powerless freshman. But Mel Carnahan was hopeful. A few weeks before his death last week in a private plane crash, Carnahan told Time that he enjoyed serving in Missouri's statehouse and that he "revered" his late father, who served in Congress from 1945 to 1960. "I would like to go there and do my own version of what he did," Carnahan said.

Carnahan's death shocked his home state. At his campaign office, aides wandered listlessly. After last week's presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri, several hundred mourners massed in a nearby park in the chill air. Condolences filled talk radio. An officeholder since 1960, when he was 26, Carnahan was a beloved two-term Governor. A self-styled New Democrat, he had some of the Midwestern twang and even a bit of the look of Harry Truman, who once held the Senate seat Carnahan was seeking. His death not only cut short his career but dimmed Democratic hopes. Al Gore's shot at carrying this battleground state is weakened now. So are the Democrats' chances of taking control of the Senate. Ironically, they had that opportunity only because two G.O.P. Senators — Georgia's Paul Coverdell and Rhode Island's John Chaffee — died unexpectedly while in office. Carnahan's death would seem to all but guarantee the re-election of John Ashcroft, a conservative Republican he had feuded with since serving as his Lieutenant Governor back in the '80s.

But there's still a slim chance that Carnahan might win a posthumous victory. Under Missouri law, Carnahan's name will remain on the ballot despite his death. If he were somehow to defeat Ashcroft — the race had been very close — a series of odd but formidable events would unfold. On Jan. 3, Ashcroft's Senate term would expire. Missouri law requires the seat to be declared "vacant," since the victor in the election would be dead. The state's interim Governor, Roger Wilson, who took office last week upon Carnahan's death, would appoint an interim Senator, who would stand for re-election in two years. On Jan. 8, a new Governor will be sworn in as well, but it's still Wilson who makes the appointment, according to the Missouri secretary of state's office. Since Wilson would undoubtedly pick a fellow Democrat, the G.O.P. would lose the seat.

About the only way the late Carnahan can beat a living Ashcroft is if Wilson announces in advance whom he intends to appoint should Ashcroft lose. The problem for Wilson, and the Democrats, is that the choices are few. The state's leading member of Congress, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, doesn't want the job. Attorney General Jay Nixon and former Senator Thomas Eagleton probably can't beat Ashcroft. The only Democrat with a shot at doing that would be Carnahan's widow, Jean. But since she also lost a son, Roger, in the crash — an aide to the Governor, Chris Sifford, also died — friends say it will be hard to muster the strength. William Clay Jr., a leading state Democrat, advises his party to "tailor a message in memory of Mel: 'Come out; he would have wanted you to vote.'" For Missourians and Americans, the Carnahan death was tragedy. For Democrats, though, it was tragedy times two.