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Carnahan death casts shadow over last presidential debate

Bush, Gore leave St. Louis, residents hardly notice

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- The untimely death of Missouri Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan cast such a shroud over Tuesday night's presidential debate here that even the day after, people in the St. Louis area are still doing their best to sort out and absorb the events of the last 36 hours.

Tuesday's debate is being scored Wednesday morning by most observers, for all intents and purposes, as a draw. Carnahan's shocking fate might have contributed to the course of the night's events significantly, but Vice President Al Gore -- who could have allowed himself to be spooked into a dispirited performance by the death of his fellow Democrat -- took a solidly aggressive stance against George W. Bush, resulting in a fierce debate that once again yielded no clear victor.

Carnahan, 66, his son Roger, nicknamed "Randy," 44, and one of his closest advisors, Chris Sifford, 37, perished Monday night in the crash of the younger Carnahan's private plane just outside of St. Louis. The three had just departed a downtown St. Louis airport for a fund-raiser in Jefferson County.

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The craft disappeared from radar just minutes after leaving St. Louis. Local television and radio reports Wednesday morning indicated Roger Carnahan may have reported problems with the plane's gyroscope just prior to the time the plane is thought to have crashed.

Missourians are immersed Wednesday in funeral preparations, and tributes continue to poor in from across the country for the late governor.

Carnahan was deep into the process of seeking a new place of employment. Missouri law barred the phenomenally popular governor from seeking a third term in Jefferson City, the state capital, and he was engaged in a bruising battle with incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, a Republican, to claim Ashcroft's seat out from under him.

The race between the two, counted as one of the most vicious in the country by many observers, was dead even at the time of Carnahan's death.

Ashcroft has since suspended his campaign.

Turn on a television here Wednesday morning, or listen to local news radio, and you'd have little idea an event so pivotal to this year's election cycle took place here Tuesday night. The area is reeling, stunned by Carnahan's passing and the way it has thrown the race for Ashcroft's Senate seat into such disarray.

"There is a pall cast over the state," said former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth. "It's palpable."

Debate atmosphere, candidate appreciations

The crash of Carnahan's aircraft sparked a frenzy on the campus of St. Louis' Washington University, site of the final of three presidential debate, as word trickled in Monday night.

Media members on site, many of whom were doing their predatory set-up for the debate late into the night Monday, said they started to hear rumors of the mishap within an hour of the plane disappearing from radar, but confirmation was not received until nearly 11:30 p.m. -- as many of them were packing up to go home, or back to their hotels.

Word came late because the Jefferson County Sheriff's office didn't confirm the plane was down until some three hours after the time of the crash, and because many members of the local media were either at the debate site, or in Queens, New York, watching the St. Louis Cardinals fall to the New York Mets in the National League Championship series.

The Cardinals' loss added all the more pain and anguish to the mood felt across the university campus on Tuesday.

Many of the local journalists at the debate site were the only people their organizations had in place Monday to deal with the crash. The debate's filing center was turned by necessity into a bustling newsroom that stayed active all Monday night and into Tuesday.

Discussions were quickly inititated between the debate's organizer, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, and operatives for the Bush and Gore campaign, and by early Tuesday morning, word was circulating that the debate could either be canceled or postponed.

The decision to go forward was reached by midmorning Tuesday, prompted in part by a written statement issued by Carnahan's wife Jean, who said her husband would have wanted the event to go on.

"My husband sincerely believed that government can be honest, good and noble, just as the founders of our nation meant for it to be," she said. Bush and Gore, Jean Carnahan intimated, had a chance to honor that legacy Tuesday night.

The commission's Executive Director, Janet Brown, said Tuesday evening that the organization decided it had no choice but to honor Jean Carnahan's wishes.

Her decision was made at the behest of commission member Danforth.

The former senator told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he urged Brown to go foward in a 6:30 a.m. telephone conversation.

"I told her we can't do that to the rest of the country," he said. "The presidential debates are a matter of national importance and they must be held."

"I would like to express the commission's deepest sympathies to the Carnhan family for what they have had to deal with these last few hours," Brown said before describing the course of morning deliberations with the campaigns prior to deciding to move ahead with the event.

"This is a national and international event," Brown said. "We have decided to honor Carnahan's wife and his memory by holding this event in his memory."

Once the debate was underway, moderator Jim Lehrer called for a moment of silence, and Gore and Bush both made mention of Carnahan, making for three or four of the debate's most civil minutes.

"Tipper and I were good friends with Mel and Randy, and I know that all of us here want to extend our sympathy and condolences to Jean and the family and to the Sifford family," Gore said.

"And I would just like to say that this debate in a way is a living tribute to Mel Carnahan because he loved the vigorous discussion of ideas in our democracy. He was a fantastic governor of Missouri," Gore continued.

"This state became one of the top five in the nation for health care coverage for children under his leadership. One of the best in advancing all kinds of benefits for children to grow up healthy and strong."

Bush said he had gotten to know Carnahan through their parallel work as state governors.

"I, too, want to extend my prayers and blessings, God's blessings on the families whose lives were overturned yes ... last night. It's a tragic moment," Bush said.

Bush had disclosed earlier that he requested that the Missouri Republican Party implement a 48-hour moratorium on all political advertisements as a sign of respect.

Just blocks away from the debate site, a crowd gathered for a candlelight vigil for Carnahan in an attempt to deal with the weight of that tragedy.

In Forest Park, some 500 mourners held white candles festooned with black ribbons as the debate raged a short distance away on the Washington University campus, and as some 1,500 protesters attempted to get a variety of points across at a rally even further down the road. Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was in that group's midst for much of the evening.

Now is the time for Missouri to decide how to handle Carnahan's passing. With so little time to go before the Nov. 7 general election, Carnahan's name will remain on the state's Senate ballot. He could win, but with each passing hour, the possibility becomes somewhat more remote.

State and national Democratic strategists privately concede that Ashcroft, who has stayed relatively silent since the crash, is almost certainly assured of a win.

"For all intents and purposes, this race is over," one such source told the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday.

President Clinton, whom Carnahan defended vigorously through his 1998 impeachment travails, will attend the governor's memorial service in Jefferson City on Friday.

 
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Wednesday, October 18, 2000


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