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SANTOS, Brazil – Brazil's presidential race is in stunned disarray after one of the top three contenders was killed on the campaign trial when a small plane carrying him and aides crashed into a residential area in this port city.
Socialist politician Eduardo Campos and the six other people aboard the aircraft died in the accident Wednesday, which came less than two months ahead of the Oct. 4 presidential election.
President Dilma Rousseff, who opinion polls say leads the race, declared three days of official mourning for Campos and said she was suspending her campaign during that time. The other main candidate, Aecio Neves, also said he was putting his campaign on hold.
"Brazil is in mourning and reeling from a death that took the life of a promising young politician," Rousseff said in a solemn address. She said Campos had had "an extremely promising future ahead."
The 49-year-old scion of a powerful political family from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Campos was a fixture on the Brazilian political scene since his youth, having served as state and federal representative and also as Pernambuco's governor. He had been allied with Rousseff and her Workers Party but broke away ahead of the presidential campaign. Opinion polls had said Campos was running in third place, behind Rousseff and Neves.
Campos was married to his high school sweetheart and the two had five children, the youngest of whom was born in January with Down Syndrome.
The candidate, four members of his campaign staff and two pilots were traveling from Rio de Janeiro to the city of Guaruja when the Cessna 560XL went down in nearby Santos around 10 a.m.
Aeronautical officials said the plane was trying to land in bad weather, although the Globo television network broadcast interviews with witnesses who said the aircraft was in flames before it crashed among apartment buildings. An investigation has been opened to determine the exact cause, Brazil's aeronautical agency said.
Television stations broadcast images of the crash site on a continuous loop, showing a smoldering pit littered with debris and what appeared to be plane parts and emergency workers picking through the wreckage.
Daniel Onias, a civil defense officer on the scene, said the victims' bodies were "disintegrated." Five people on the ground at the time of the crash were slightly injured, he said.
The accident sent shock waves through Brazil's political class and had pundits speculating about how it might affect the election.
Campos' running mate, former Environment Minister Marina Silva, is widely seen as one of Brazil's most popular politicians and a potential political threat to Rousseff. Brazilian law gives parties 10 days to choose a substitute in the case of a candidate's death, and it was thought likely that the Brazilian Socialist Party would choose Silva to step in for Campos.
Silva herself didn't give any hints about her political future. In a brief statement to reporters in Santos, a shaken Silva spoke solely about Campos and her relationship with him. Silva, who got 20 percent of the vote in the 2010 presidential election, joined Campos' ticket last October after she was unable to set up her own party in time to run against for president.
"During these 10 months of partnership, I learned to respect him, admire him and feel confidence in his attitudes and his ideals in life," she said in a soft, wavering voice. "This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a tragedy which plunges us into a profound sadness that I know that every single Brazilian is sharing with each and every one of us."
She rose from the microphone without taking questions.
David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said Campos' death was "bad news for Brazil and very bad news for Dilma."
Should Silva become the Socialists' candidate, she would likely pull votes away from Rousseff, forcing the race into a second round between the president and the No. 2 candidate, Neves, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, Fleischer said. Silva's support of Neves in a runoff could threaten Rousseff's chances of re-election, he said.
Rousseff, the hand-picked successor of ex-President Silva, has seen her popularity flag in recent months amid popular dissatisfaction with slowing growth, high taxes and poor public services — although she has remained the strongest candidate. A survey by the Ibope polling agency released over the weekend said 38 percent of those questioned supported Rousseff, while 23 percent were for Neves and 9 percent backed Campos.
Associated Press writers Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Ana Santos in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.