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Published: Thursday, 11/16/2000

Dead and alive in Missouri

This unusual election is making American history in so many ways that it is easy to overlook what happened in Missouri, where a dead man was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks before the election, but won another term anyway. As a result, while the nation debates the use of punch cards and the role of the Electoral College and ponders who the next president will be, the citizens of Missouri know who their next senator will be: the governor's widow, Jean Carnahan. She was appointed to the post by the state's new governor, Roger Wilson.

The appointment itself was not unusual. Seven widows have served in the U.S. Senate - Hattie Wyatt Caraway from Arkansas and Muriel Buck Humphrey of Minnesota among them - in the 1900s, and three are now in the House. Mary Bono, wife of the late Sonny Bono, is the best known of the three. No widower is known to have been appointed to his wife's political post.

But in those instances, widows were mostly appointed to complete a spouse's term. The scenario is different for Mrs. Carnahan, whose late husband died while campaigning and still received 50 per cent of the votes, while the incumbent, Republican John Ashcroft, got 48 per cent.

Certainly it is humiliating for an incumbent to lose to a dead man. For one thing, it has never happened before. Governor Carnahan and his son were killed while traveling to a campaign appearance, a tragedy which occurred so close to the election that his name stayed on the ballot.

Some Republicans have considered challenging the election. But Mr. Ashcroft was gracious in not only conceding the Missouri Senate race, but in saying he won't take part in a legal battle and would discourage others from pursuing one.

Her husband's supporters obviously believed the governor's widow best knows her late spouse's legacy and can be expected to carry it out. Mrs. Carnahan, an impressive and respected person in her own right, will seek to protect Social Security, reduce the national debt, and improve education.

Mrs. Carnahan will not get a full six-year term. Because she will be an appointed senator, she will serve only until the next general election in 2002.

That should be plenty of time for her to decide if she wants to continue, and for Missouri to decide if she warrants a full term. In any event, hers is just one more strange story to come out of one of the most bizarre elections in American history.

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