EVELETH, Minn., Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Liberal Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others died in the crash of a small plane on Minnesota's Iron Range Friday. He was 58.
A spokeswoman for the Wellstone re-election campaign said the senator, his wife, Sheila, and their daughter, Marcia, along with three campaign staff members, the pilot and co-pilot, were killed when the twin-engine Beech King Air Turboprop crashed in light snow, freezing drizzle and fog near Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 180 miles northeast of Minneapolis.
His death comes amid a heated election battle seen as key to the Democrats retaining control of the U.S. Senate.
The crash was eerily reminiscent of the one that killed former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and his pilot son in 2000 just three weeks before that election. Carnahan was elected posthumously over incumbent Republican Sen. and now Attorney General John Ashcroft. Carnahan's widow was appointed to fill the seat for two years and is running for election in her own right.
Wellstone's death sent the Minnesota secretary of state's office scrambling to determine whether Wellstone's name should remain on the ballot. Minnesota law provides for a supplement to the ballot when the death or incapacitation of a candidate occurs 16 days prior to an election but the current round of balloting was just 11 days off.
With Gov. Jesse Ventura an independent, it was unclear who would be appointed to serve out the remainder of Wellstone's term and whether that would send the Democrat-controlled Senate into reorganization when the body reconvenes for its lame-duck session after the Nov. 5 election. Ventura said Friday that it was too soon to talk about a replacement, but he did say it would not be himself.
"The state of Minnesota has suffered a deep and penetrating loss," Ventura said.
Wellstone was locked in a tight re-election battle with Republican former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Coleman immediately suspended all campaign activities.
"The people of Minnesota have experienced a terrible, unimaginable tragedy," Coleman said in a statement. ... The entire Wellstone family has been selfless, public servants who embodied the best of Minnesota."
The latest poll conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, conducted Oct. 11-16, gave Wellstone a 6-point lead over Coleman with 12 percent undecided and an error rate of 3 percent.
President George W. Bush, from his Texas ranch where he was meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zeman, called Wellstone "a man of deep conviction, a plainspoken fellow who did his best for the people of his home state." Jiang also expressed his condolences.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who was at Wellstone's campaign office in St. Paul, called his colleague "really a special person, a very unique man ... We'll miss you, Paul, and we'll never forget you."
"Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all," Kennedy said. "He had an intense passion and enormous ability to reach out, touch and improve the lives of the people he served so brilliantly."
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who considered Wellstone a close friend, said Wellstone "was honest, cheerful and had a wonderful sense of humor."
"While Paul and I differed philosophically and politically, I greatly admired and respected his energy and his commitment to public policy and the people of Minnesota," Craig said. "The Senate will not be the same without him."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called Wellstone's death a "tragedy."
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the White House and Capitol as well as on the Minnesota Statehouse.
Wellstone was seen as a champion of the little guy, fighting for a higher minimum wage, affordable health care and other issues important to working people. He stuck to his principles and in his latest controversial act voted against authorizing military action against Iraq -- the only incumbent senator in a tight race to do so.
At the time of the crash, Wellstone was en route to the funeral of a friend in Eveleth, a town of 4,000 and home to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. He had been scheduled to appear in a debate Friday night with Coleman in Duluth, about 60 miles away.
Wellstone's plane, which lost radio contact at 10:20 a.m. EDT, had been leased to the Wellstone campaign by Beech Transportation Inc. of Eden Prairie, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were called to investigate.
Wellstone, who had been seeking a third term in the Senate, was considered a progressive in the tradition of such Democratic luminaries as Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.
Paul David Wellstone was born to Russian immigrant parents July 21, 1944. Raised in Arlington, Va., Wellstone attended Wakefield and Yorktown high schools before attending the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was a champion wrestler and earned a doctoral degree in political science in 1969. He taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., for 21 years.
Wellstone, a father of three, married Sheila Ison in 1963.
Wellstone was the underdog and built a formidable volunteer campaign staff in 1990, when he defeated incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz. He was known for traversing the state in what became his trademark green bus.
Wellstone fought for such issues as parental leave and affordable health care. He also supported increasing the minimum wage and preventing corporations from raiding pension funds. In his second term, Wellstone turned his attention to children.
Wellstone had been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in late 1990s and former Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., bemoaned Wellstone's decision not to run, saying it cost the nation much-needed "Harry Truman-type leadership."
Wellstone also fought the impeachment of President Clinton.
"You know, I'm a political scientist, a teacher by background. There's no proportionality
here," Wellstone said at the time. "I think what people in the country are saying, we know the president has not been truthful and we know he had an affair. But does this constitute a threat to our freedom and liberty in the country? The answer is no. This shouldn't have come to the Senate."
Wellstone is survived by two sons and six grandchildren.