Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington was framed in American flags.
To her right drooped Old Glory. To her left, the California bear. Before her was splayed a veritable cornucopia of Orange County Young Republicans.
Summoning all the wit and finesse she had earned long ago as head of the Cambridge University debating society, the elegant author, socialite and congressional spouse set to work on her unsuspecting audience. Her mission: to nudge the Grand Old Party into examining its collective soul.
And, oh yes, help her husband, Michael, win Democrat Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat in November.
"It is not enough for (President) Clinton to fail for us to succeed," she said to the hushed hotel function room in Costa Mesa, the heart of California Republican-land and home to Michael Huffington for Senate headquarters. "Ultimately, we need to provide the American people with an alternate vision."
Huffington, 43, statuesque in a Carolina Herrera pleated brown suit and auburn coif, laid out her case. Cribbing from her startling speech--"Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?"--that gently chastened a National Review magazine conference in Washington a year ago, Huffington reminded her fellow social policy critics that if government were to drop the welfare ball, they would all do well to pick it up. In Huffington's ideal future, a "critical mass" of spiritually inclined citizens would succeed where government had failed, volunteering time and money en masse to care for the tired and poor.
"I see it as a scientific equivalent of grace," she said in velvet tones laced with hints of her native Greece. "We do our part and God meets us halfway. That's why I'm a conservative. Because conservatives believe in the individual."
The wife of the Santa Barbara Republican opened the floor to questions. Despite her inch-by-inch, speech-by-speech campaign aimed at nothing less than a spiritual overhaul of the Republican Party and eventually the country, her speech whizzed by the kempt heads of her audience. Instead of marching toward the millennium as spiritual soldiers defending a shrinking government, they seemed like holdouts from the Me Generation.
What was Michael's position on federal taxes? And the National Endowment for the Arts? And, from a young Republican in a tight blond bun, what does he plan to do about illegal immigration--"since you're an immigrant"?
"Obviously, people are preoccupied with the obvious political issues," Huffington said later. "I think when you expand the political debate to areas which are not the traditional issues of crime, economy and jobs, they're more likely to ask questions about what they're familiar with.
"But I don't see it as an indication that they're not listening. I intend to spend the next months drumming that message up and down the state."
Some observers believe the Huffingtons' sights include far more than California. Noting Michael's quick bid for the Senate after less than two years in the House, they speculate that the couple has its eyes on the ultimate political prize--the presidency.
"What is interesting is the way people think that you want to be in the White House," Huffington said in an interview, perched on a pastel couch in their L.A. pied a terre. "To me, that is a very small ambition. There are many people who have been in the White House and have achieved nothing dramatic. What we are talking about is a crusade, which is so much bigger than being in the White House . . . to achieve this critical mass that can change our country.
"In that sense, my quote unquote ambitions are a lot larger than the ones people are assigning to me, and larger in the sense that they're not personal."
If Huffington fails to enlist a country's worth of eager recruits, it won't be for want of trying. In May, Simon & Schuster will publish her manifesto, "The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul." Huffington's sixth book argues that big government cheats people out of the spiritual rewards of giving to the needy.
The book, a cable-TV show, as well as the recruitment soirees she calls "critical mass" dinners and the Senate race are the latest salvos in Huffington's longstanding and sometimes controversial campaign to mesh ostensible opposites--spirituality and the halls of power.
Her latest bout is winning praise from fellow conservatives and spiritual leaders. Film critic Michael Medved, who appeared on National Empowerment Television's "Critical Mass" to discuss Hollywood as an enemy of traditional values, applauded her efforts to be "inclusive in assembling this critical mass."
"She's being inclusive in the political spectrum and within the religious world. I think she's going out of her way to work together with people from every kind of faith and community rather than rooting it firmly in one aspect of that community or another," he said.