JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — With one powerful phrase, Robin Carnahan brought tears to thousands of mourners at the Missouri Capitol following the tragic death of Gov. Mel Carnahan. "Dad, I promise, we won't let the fire go out," she said at his public memorial.
Her eulogy became the rallying cry that propelled Mel Carnahan to a posthumous victory in a close and emotional U.S. Senate race.
Ten years later in the final days before another election, Robin Carnahan is evoking her father's memory and reviving her eulogistic vow in an attempt to raise money for own U.S. Senate race. Candidates often seek to use every advantage they can in the waning weeks of an intense campaign. But this case is especially resonant.
Carnahan, who is secretary of state, is competing against Republican U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt in a Nov. 2 election to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond. Polls have shown her trailing, though not out of striking range.
The race has gotten personal and nasty. TV ads have attacked Blunt's wife and son, who are both lobbyists, and Carnahan's brother, whose business got $107 million from the federal stimulus act. But Blunt has avoided mentioning Mel Carnahan. And except for occasional references in speeches, Robin Carnahan generally has shied away from running on her father's legacy.
That changed this past week, when Carnahan sent a fundraising e-mail on the 10th anniversary of her father's memorial service that included a black-and-white photo of her father alongside the banner headline: "DON'T LET THE FIRE GO OUT."
The letter recalls the grief of that day and the voters' response in the 2000 election, then it criticizes Blunt and says some pundits — as they did 10 years ago — want to declare the Senate race over.
"Ten years ago today I made a promise to my father that I'd never let the fire go out," Carnahan writes. "Nothing could stop us then and nothing can stop us now. I really need your help. And I appreciate it more than you will ever know."
Blunt's campaign declined to comment about Carnahan's fundraising reference to her father.
Carnahan, 49, remained largely behind the scenes in politics before her father, her brother Randy, and her father's longtime aide were killed in a plane crash in October 2000. She ran for secretary of state in 2004 and easily won re-election four years later.
Blunt, 60, would have faced Mel Carnahan in the 1992 gubernatorial campaign had Blunt not lost the Republican primary. One of Blunt's sons, Matt Blunt, served as governor from 2005-2009, but Roy Blunt largely has avoided mentioning his son's governorship. His other son, Andy Blunt, has managed his Senate campaign, as well as the statewide campaigns of his brother.
Deciding when to evoke the memory of a popular, deceased family member is a sensitive and strategic issue for campaigns, said political science professor Ken Warren, of Saint Louis University. In Carnahan's case, "she knows her poll numbers have been fairly stable on the losing side for a long time," Warren said. "This is something that could work — reminding people of how popular her father is."
When President Barack Obama appeared this summer at a Carnahan fundraiser in Kansas City, attendee Vicki Asbury turned first to Carnahan's father when asked why she liked Carnahan for Senate.
"I supported Robin's dad for years," Asbury said. "I just like what she has to say and who she stands for."
But those family ties cut both ways. Though popular enough to regularly win election, Mel Carnahan still was opposed by at least 40 percent of voters in most of his statewide races. Some of that carries over to his daughter.
"To put it bluntly, I hate Robin Carnahan," said Larry Gross, of Clinton, an attendee at a Blunt campaign event. "I just never have liked that group, her father or her."
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