Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed Friday when his small chartered plane crashed near an airport runway, Democratic sources said.
EVELETH, Minn. (AP) - Sen. Paul Wellstone, an outspoken liberal Democrat locked in a re-election battle considered key to control of the Senate, was killed in a plane crash Friday in northern Minnesota along with his wife, daughter and five others.
The twin-engine private plane went down in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. The cause of the crash was under investigation.
Wellstone, a 58-year-old former college professor and one of the foremost liberals on Capitol Hill, was on his way to the funeral of the father of a state lawmaker.
"It's just terrible. Say a prayer," said Lisa Pattni, an aide who was at the crash site.
All eight people aboard the 11-seat King Air A-100 were killed, said Greg Martin, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Campaign officials confirmed the victims also included Wellstone's wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia; three campaign staff members; and two pilots.
Wellstone's death just 11 days before Election Day threw the battle for the Senate into uncharted territory. Before Friday, Democrats held control by a single seat.
State officials were researching whether Wellstone's name would remain on the ballot, or whether independent Gov. Jesse Ventura or state Democrats could appoint a replacement to serve in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress between Election Day and the arrival of new members.
State law allows the governor to fill a vacant Senate seat, but also allows a political party to appoint a replacement in the event of a death of a nominee. The name must be offered within seven days of the death and at least four days before an election.
Shaken Democratic officials wouldn't immediately comment on possible replacements, though party spokesman Bill Amberg said he was confident the party would be allowed to offer a replacement. Rebecca Yanisch, the state trade commissioner who ran for Senate in 2000, indicated she might be interested.
Two years ago, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day while running for the Senate. Carnahan's name remained on the ballot and he beat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now seeking election to a full term against Republican Jim Talent.
Wellstone was up against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and President Bush's choice to challenge the two-term incumbent. A Coleman spokesman, Ben Whitney, said: "Our prayers are with the Wellstone family. That's all I'm going to say."
Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5. In Texas, Bush called Wellstone "a man of deep convictions."
"He was a plainspoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country," the president said. "May the good Lord bless those who grieve."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called Wellstone the "soul of the Senate. He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known."
Before running for office, Wellstone was a professor and community organizer who fused the two passions in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield called "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing."
He stunned the political establishment by knocking off Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz with a longshot bid for office in 1990. Afterward, left-leaning Mother Jones magazine called him "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate."
Wellstone had pledged to stay for no more than two terms, but last year, he announced he would be running again. In February, he announced he had been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis but he said it wouldn't stop his campaign.
"For me, no stress would be stress," Wellstone said at the time. "The stress of this campaign is what I want to do, to be perfectly honest. And the stress of being a senator is what I want to do."
State Democratic Party chairman Mike Erlandson said Wellstone for years had been "the heartbeat" of the party.
"He took pride every day in fighting on behalf of the people of Minnesota," he said.
Liberal to the end, Wellstone cast his vote earlier this month against legislation to authorize the use of force in Iraq - the only Democrat in a competitive race to go against Bush on the issue.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan both called Wellstone a champion of peace.
"He was a profoundly decent man, a man of principle, a man of conscience," Annan said.
"Wellstone stood up for the little guy," added AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "He was tireless and unapologetic for championing the rights of working men and women - even when he stood alone, and he often did."
Wellstone also had two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.
The King Air turboprop was made by Raytheon Corp. with Pratt & Whitney engines, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The owner was listed as Beech Transportation Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., and the plane had been leased by Wellstone.More from MPR