Governor's death in plane crash numbs candidates

Click to follow
The Independent US

The American campaign season was numbed by tragedy yesterday when Missouri mourned the death in a plane crash of its Democratic Governor, Mel Carnahan, who was in a tight race for a US Senate seat with the Republican incumbent, John Ashcroft.

The American campaign season was numbed by tragedy yesterday when Missouri mourned the death in a plane crash of its Democratic Governor, Mel Carnahan, who was in a tight race for a US Senate seat with the Republican incumbent, John Ashcroft.

Governor Carnahan, 66, was killed on Monday evening when his light aircraft crashed in wet and foggy weather about 25 miles south-west of St Louis. Two others travelling on the plane also died - the Governor's son, Randy Carnahan, 44, who was at the controls, and his chief political adviser, Chris Sifford, 36.

The death of the Governor came as the US presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W Bush, were preparing for the last of their three televised debates, to be held in St Louis last night. Organisers discussed postponing or cancelling the debate with both campaigns; they decided to go ahead with it.

Flags were flying at half-mast across Missouri as news of the tragedy spread and tributes poured in. Investigators from the National Transportation and Safety Board, NTSB, were at the crash site. Small pieces of plane and human remains were scattered over a large area in rocky and densely wooded terrain.

Democrats, in particular, were stunned by the loss. Mr Carnahan was a two-term Governor who was hugely popular in the party. Politically, moreover, he died at a crucial time. His race against Senator Ashcroft, a darling of the conservative Christians, was among the most closely contested in the country.

The outcome of the contest between Mr Carnahan and Mr Ashcroft was considered pivotal to the Democratic Party's hopes of regaining control of the US Senate, where Republicans currently have a slim majority. The latest polls had Mr Ashcroft ahead of the Governor by a very slim margin.

In a macabre accident of timing, the deadline had passed yesterday to remove Governor Carnahan from the election ballots. Missourians will have choose their senator between Mr Ashcroft and their dead Governor. Senator Ashcroft, who suspended his campaign indefinitely, is now odds-on.

While it might still be possible for Mr Carnahan to win on 7 November, the Republican Party would test any such result in the courts which, in turn, would almost certainly rule that a dead man could not serve.

The Democratic Party now faces a near-impossible task in retaking the Senate. The death is also likely to critically hurt Mr Gore, because Missouri is one of a handful of important states finely balanced between him and Mr Bush. A likely fall in turn-out among Democrats in the state may easily tip Missouri Mr Bush's way, analysts argued.

The accident highlights the peril hundreds of candidates face across America, as they take to the skies in chartered and usually tiny aircraft to cover vast distances. Only the presidential candidates are able to lease the kinds of commercial jets enjoyed by Mr Bush and Mr Gore. Curiously, Missouri was similarly bereaved in 1976, when Jerry Litton, a US Congressman, died in a plane crash the evening that he won the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate.

The cause of Monday night's accident is still unclear. The aircraft, a twin-engined Cessna, left a St Louis area airport at about 7pm and was bound for New Madrid, a small city in the south of the state where the Governor was to appear at a campaign rally. Air traffic controllers reported the plane vanishing from radar at 7.30pm.

Witnesses in the area reported hearing the engines of the Cessna suddenly racing, suggesting some kind of power failure. In trying to save the aircraft, the Governor's son may also have been disoriented in the foggy visibility.

Tom Hunter, who lives near the crash site, told the St Louis TV station KMOV that he heard the plane flying overhead. "I thought, 'What a crazy person in this kind of weather'. Next thing, it sounded like it was in a very steep dive, the engine was just screaming,'' He heard a loud explosion and the sky turned red. "That was it,'' he said. "It was total silence.''

Among those predicting Senator Ashcroft's success was Professor Ken Warren of St Louis University. "It would take an awful lot of very unreasonable Missourians to elect a dead person and I don't think they're out there."

President Clinton rang the Governor's wife, Jean, in the early hours of yesterday to express his condolences.

Comments