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Breaking News

Pres. Debate Will Go On Despite Death of Missouri Governor

Aired October 17, 2000 - 8:12 a.m. ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: And now we return to breaking news right here in the United States.

CNN has confirmed that, in fact, the third and final presidential debate will go on tonight in the state of Missouri. There was some debate on whether it might continue because of the tragedy there this morning for the Democrats in particular. Governor Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash. Missouri's governor was killed in the crash of a light plane last night southwest of St. Louis.

Governor Carnahan was 66 years old. He was a two-term governor, a Democratic governor, and a candidate in a very tight race for the U.S. Senate. An aide says that Carnahan's son, Roger, was also on that plane, and in fact piloting that plane, and a campaign adviser, Christopher Sifford, were also onboard the plane. No one survived the crash.

That plane went down in Jefferson County, Missouri about 30 miles from St. Louis, near the town of Hillsboro.

CNN's national correspondent Gary Tuchman is there and he now has the latest -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, the first lady of the state of Missouri has lost a husband and a son. Her husband, the governor of the state, was on his way to a campaign rally in the town of New Madrid, Missouri. He had taken off from Cahokia, Illinois, right across the Missouri state line, right across the Mississippi River, at the Parks Airport, that's part of an aviation college, that's part of the University of St. Louis.

It was a half an hour flight, but about 25 minutes after the flight, witnesses recorded hearing the plane dive, and then hearing an explosion.

And one mile from where we are standing, in the town of Hillsboro, Missouri, the wreckage of the plane now sits in a ravine, a heavily-wooded area. As of now, authorities have not been able to get to the area to find any of the wreckage, or any of the victims.

Now the governor was involved in a very tight political race, a race for the Senate against the Republican incumbent, John Ashcroft. Right now the governor's press secretary is broken hearted.


JERRY NACHTIGAL, CARNAHAN PRESS SECRETARY: It is with great sadness that we report that earlier this evening a plane believed to be carrying Governor Mel Carnahan, his son Roger, and senior campaign adviser Chris Sifford went down in Jefferson County. There were no survivors.

The identities of the passengers have not been confirmed. It is with great sorrow that his staff extends their condolences to Mrs. Carnahan and her family. We also extend our deep-felt sympathy to the family of our beloved co-worker Chris Sifford.

Governor Carnahan always believed that public service was a noble calling. His belief in the greatness of the citizens of this state, especially the children, was unwavering. He was the greatest governor this state has ever had and we will miss him dearly.


TUCHMAN: About five hours ago, official papers were signed making lieutenant governor of Missouri, Roger Wilson, the acting governor. It is expected that after the governor's body is found, he will take the oath of office as governor.

And it's interesting because the lieutenant governor had said that he no longer wanted to be in politics. He was going to leave office once the governor left office at the end of the year.


LT. GOV. ROGER WILSON, ACTING MISSOURI GOVERNOR: The Disability Board has met because of the inability of Governor Carnahan to communicate. I am acting governor at this time.

I am very thankful for the support of the state officials, those in the House and the Senate, and I would like to ask the permission to lean on about five million Missourian shoulders. That's the end of this announcement.


TUCHMAN: Now John Ashcroft, the man who he was running against for the Senate, has released a statement. The statement reads, quote: "We hope and pray that this tragedy has not occurred." We of course now have realized it has occurred. He continued, "Out of respect of Governor Carnahan and his family we suspend the campaign indefinitely."

It looks very interesting what's going to happen at this point because it is less than a month to the election, under Missouri state law, the governor's name will remain on the ballot and it's conceivable the governor could still win this race. If he does win the election, it is not known who would take his seat in the United States Senate.

But, as of now, we must repeat: No victims have been found and no identifiable parts of the aircraft.

This is Gary Tuchman, CNN, live in Hillsboro, Missouri.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, thank you, Gary.

The plane crash southwest of St. Louis came as the presidential candidates practiced for tonight's third and final debate of the 2000 campaign in that city.

The event gets some added weight from the tightness of the race. The latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup tracking poll gives George W. Bush 47 percent of likely voter support, Al Gore 44 percent, an edge that is well within the survey's margin of error.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken is in St. Louis this morning for tonight's encounter, which comes just three Tuesdays from election day.

Bob, first off, it appears the debate will go on tonight despite the death of Governor Carnahan?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, CNN, as a matter of fact, was contacted by the debate's commission, and we were told that after a discussion with the two campaigns, the decision was made to go forward. Of course this -- the crash of the plane does cast a pall of gloom over the entire matter. But the debate is going to go forward, and as you pointed out, the stakes are incredibly high.

George W. Bush right now seems to be in the driver's seat of this very, very, very close race. He -- the polls seem to be trending in his direction. And he is in St. Louis now getting ready for the debate, in effect taking an offensive position.

The offense will have to be taken by the Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, who thus far has not really scored the knockout punches that he was hoping to do in the debate. This time it will be a different format, it will be the town hall meeting kind of format.

You can see the vice president here practicing with a group of quote, "real people" that he recruited to help them with the questions that he wanted asked, that type of thing. They will be providing the questions this evening, through the moderator Jim Lehrer, and there will be a lot of interaction.

It is sort of the old-fashioned Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey kind of style that served Bill Clinton so well when he took on President Bush, the father of the current candidate, eight years ago.

But now, Vice President Gore is the one who has to really score big. George W. Bush, as I said, has to hold his own. It is the third of the debates, each one has gotten more informal. The race continues to be tight. Three weeks until the election, so this one, as you said, Leon, is highly important.

Bob Franken, CNN live, St. Louis. HARRIS: All right, thanks, Bob. We'll get back to you later on.



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