'Still for Mel!'

Posted: Oct 31, 2000 12:00 AM
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On his demolition tour against George W. Bush, Al Gore arrived in this bellwether state last Wednesday night to address a macabre political event: a pep rally for the state's governor, who is dead, and his widow, who was absent. "Still for Mel!" was the message on posters at the outdoor rally. How could you "still" be for the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, killed eight days earlier in a plane crash? By voting for the dead man to unseat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft Nov. 7, with the understanding that his widow, Jean Carnahan, would be appointed to the Senate. Private polls show that the deceased Carnahan today would defeat the live Ashcroft -- perhaps easily. But that could trigger a constitutional crisis over whether someone who is not living can be elected to the Senate. Missouri Republicans don't know how to approach this, but a national GOP leader told me flatly: "Jean Carnahan will never be seated in the U.S. Senate." Control of the Senate and perhaps the presidency may be at stake. Both Gore and Bush were in Kansas City last week and frequently visited the state with 11 electoral votes because of Missouri's barometric consistency. Adlai Stevenson in 1956 was the only presidential loser of the 20th Century to carry the state. So, it was an ill omen for Democrats when recent polls indicated Republicans forging ahead in Missouri's presidential, governor and Senate races. The Carnahan tragedy changed everything, including the perception of the late governor. Carnahan in life was a fierce partisan who admitted his hatred of Ashcroft, born of their power struggle when Ashcroft was governor and Carnahan lieutenant governor. In death, he instantly became universally beloved. A political strategy was laid down by the state's Democratic power brokers immediately after the plane crash. Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, sworn in as governor to replace Carnahan for the last three months of his term, asked Mrs. Carnahan to accept his appointment to the Senate should her husband win the election. "Don't worry," a leading Democratic consultant told me, "She'll accept. It's a done deal." That was signaled at last Wednesday's rally, whose slogan was taken from the funeral oration of Carnahan's daughter Robin. She repeated her father's admonition whenever he left home on a political trip: "Keep the fire burning." State Auditor Clare McCaskill read some Democratic boilerplate assailing Bush's policies and then revealed its supposed author as Jean Carnahan. That marked the transition from loyal wife to political partisan. Gov. Wilson, extolling the legacy of "Mel and Jean Carnahan," talked about "making sure Missourians have a choice for the U.S. Senate ... Keep the fire burning!" Gore preceded a particularly shrill 30-minute attack on Bush by describing the Carnahans as "equal partners" and then shouting: "Keep the fire burning. You know what that means." It means voting for Mel Carnahan, to put Jean Carnahan in the Senate. The announced crowd of 9,100 seemed to grow restive with Gore's repetitious Bush-bashing, and the candidate returned to the fire-burning theme. One independent poll was reported by Democratic sources as showing Carnahan, who in life had narrowly trailed Ashcroft, now 11 points ahead. When I checked with the pollster, he told me the lead is actually "just outside the margin of error" (which would be 5 or 6 points). Whatever the margin, Democrats hope the Carnahans will carry the state for Gore and the rest of the ticket. If the dead man is elected, powerful Republican forces are determined that his widow shall not be seated. They cite the federal Constitution requiring that "no person shall be a Senator ... who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen." The Senate would determine whether to seat Mrs. Carnahan, a second-place Ashcroft or nobody. Ashcroft, recognizing that "I'm not running against anybody," cannot tell voters that Mrs. Carnahan's chief qualification for office is that she shares her late husband's loathing for the senator. The Kansas City Star last week described itself as "uncomfortable with the antiquated practice of substituting the surviving spouse for a political office." But considering the stakes, Al Gore was not a bit uncomfortable.