A representative of the chief pro-Israel lobby in Washington confirmed Friday that he recently met with the Libertarian Party's California U.S. Senate candidate to explore whether the Libertarian could mount a substantial campaign to siphon votes away from Republican Rep. Ed Zschau's bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Alan Cranston.
"The Senate race appears to be close. We need as many candidates in it as we can get," said Dan Cohen of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
He indicated that the Sept. 15 meeting was held to explore whether the Libertarian candidate, Breck McKinley, was capable of preventing Zschau from getting nearly all of the anti-Cranston vote.
Cohen said that in a close race "even a candidate getting five or six percent of the vote can make a difference."
But he said he and the committee's Los Angeles regional director, Murray Wood, who also attended the meeting, have since concluded that McKinley, a Sherman Oaks investment analyst, has little prospect of mounting a substantial campaign, and that there would be no point in helping him. McKinley has reported having a campaign fund of only $350.
In first disclosing the meeting this week in an interview with the editor of the Political Pulse newsletter, McKinley said he had been told during the session that if Zschau began rising in the polls, AIPAC would arrange funding for a letter to Orange County Republicans attacking Zschau and supporting McKinley and would also supply a manager for McKinley's campaign.
Cohen said Friday that this was "not a correct understanding on his (McKinley's) part."
"There was not an offer made by me or by Murray (Wood)," he said. He called the meeting only exploratory, and said that in any event AIPAC does not provide direct help to candidates. He indicated, however, that it touts certain candidates as worthy of help in its newsletters and other communications with its 50,000 members, including many leading Jewish political contributors.
Wood, in a separate interview, said that he was present for all but the first two minutes of the meeting and that no mention was made in his presence of an Orange County letter or of staff help for McKinley.
Also attending the meeting was Mike Tuchin, a Stanford student who was working as an AIPAC intern. Tuchin could not be reached for comment Friday.
The meeting, reported to have lasted 30 to 45 minutes, was held in Wood's own office, which is adorned by a large number of political pictures, including one of Wood with Cranston, and another of Wood's 12-year-old son with Cranston.
McKinley said Cohen had done most of the talking and had twice repeated that AIPAC "if the race got close" would help him with the letter and a staff manager.
"I said to myself, 'Gee, that's nice,' " McKinley recalled in a Times interview Friday. "But I didn't like the idea of being a spoiler. Or if I'm a spoiler, I want to be a spoiler equally among the established contenders."
McKinley said he told Cohen and Wood that he would not compromise any of his principles in accepting any AIPAC help. Cohen, he said, quickly assured him that he would not be expected to compromise any of his principles.
"These are very smooth people, experienced operators," said McKinley, who is making his first bid for public office.
Cranston, a supporter of Israel throughout his political career, has long had close ties with AIPAC and other pro-Israel political groups. AIPAC does not endorse candidates but does tell its membership what it thinks of the candidates' stands on issues of interest to Israel.
Zschau, on the other hand, has had difficulties with them. Supporters of Israel primarily criticize two actions by the Republican candidate during his two terms in the House: He supported budget cuts that would have reduced, among a number of other items, supplemental aid to Israel. And in May of this year, he voted to sell U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia.
A Zschau spokesman, Jim LeMunyon, Friday raised questions about the legality of the AIPAC-McKinley meeting, noting that any discussion about running an independent expenditure in coordination with McKinley's candidacy would violate federal election laws.
LeMunyon added, "I think the fact that they've even talked is indicative of the fact that Zschau is rising in the polls and that Cranston's in deep trouble."
Zschau, LeMunyon declared, actually has "a very strong record on Israel."
A Cranston spokesman, Kam Kuwata, said the Cranston campaign would have no comment on the AIPAC-McKinley meeting.