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NEWS ANALYSIS : Will Huffington's Purse Strings Tangle Senate Race?

March 13, 1994|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a few months ago, campaign handicappers were counting Dianne Feinstein's reelection to the U.S. Senate as one of this year's best bets in California.

After two consecutive statewide campaigns, she has the profile of a centrist Democrat that looked to be a close match for the modern California voter. And during an active first year in Washington, she pushed her poll numbers into the range where incumbents are rarely threatened.

But at Feinstein headquarters today, the staff is preparing to fight for the senator's political life in a race they expect will probably be more expensive than any congressional contest in U.S. history. The reason is Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara).

Huffington, 46, a little-known freshman in Congress who only moved to California a few years ago, would ordinarily be regarded as a minor annoyance for a powerful veteran such as Feinstein. But the former Texas oilman is a multimillionaire who shook the political landscape in 1992 when he spent more than $5 million of his own money to unseat a popular GOP veteran.

Now he seems to have something similar in mind for the entire state. His bank account has already scared off some of the Republican Party's rising stars who had considered the race. And those remaining in the June 7 GOP primary are regarded as such long shots that Huffington has set his sights on a November showdown with Feinstein.

"The only reason that Dianne . . . has to worry about reelection is the size of Huffington's personal war chest and his avowed willingness to spend it," said Democratic campaign consultant Darry Sragow, who managed Feinstein's 1990 gubernatorial campaign but is not involved in this year's Senate race. "She is in a strong position, but were I advising Dianne, I would suggest she not take the race lightly."

California's size and diversity has forced its statewide candidates to become television celebrities because it is the only medium that has proved effective at reaching millions of voters. And because it costs millions of dollars to become a familiar face in living rooms from Eureka to San Diego, California's statewide offices have been limited to those who are well-known or those with enormous amounts of money.

Feinstein is ranked sixth among the wealthiest elected officers in Washington and when she ran for governor in 1990 she spent about $3 million of her own money in a losing effort. But she spent none of her own money to win the Senate seat two years ago and for once will face an opponent even richer than she is.

Roll Call, a weekly newspaper in Washington, has estimated her wealth, mostly from her husband's investments, at $50 million, and Huffington's at $75 million.

Huffington campaign watchers from both parties are wondering how much of his fortune the Republican candidate is willing to risk on this race. With personal money and contributions, Huffington has said his minimum campaign budget is about $15 million compared to the $10 million Feinstein's staff is planning.

Some Democrats speculate that he may be willing to send this race into the financial stratosphere by spending $20 million--more than five times the national average for a Senate race. If so, the campaign will wander into uncharted territory where conventional rules do not apply.

Huffington said in an interview that his campaign budget might run over $20 million, but added: "I hope not."

Democrats believe that Huffington has spent more than $1 million on television commercials and sources say he has pledged at least $2 million to the state Republican Party's grass-roots effort.

The money will help GOP candidates throughout the state and it has won the newcomer a lot of friends. Last week he was endorsed by the state Senate Republican caucus, a rare action before a GOP primary.

"Michael Huffington, a respected businessman, has proven that he has what it takes to win," Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy said in a statement. "He represents the party's best chance to regain this Senate seat."

Huffington will face two Republicans who have promised to wage active campaigns in the June 7 primary.

Candidate William E. Dannemeyer, 63, is a former seven-term Orange County congressman who made his reputation as a champion of conservative causes and an outspoken opponent of homosexuals. Now he accuses Huffington of practicing liberal politics that threaten the nation's economic and social well-being.

"Based on your short voting record, I have a question for you," Dannemeyer wrote to Huffington in a recent letter. "Why don't you re-register as a Democrat?"

Huffington's other primary challenger is a 34-year-old Riverside attorney, Kate Squires, who is a newcomer to politics.

Some Republican conservatives who are unhappy with Huffington are quietly encouraging Dannemeyer and Squires. But neither has shown the financial horsepower needed to wage an effective statewide campaign and even some of their supporters say they expect Huffington to be the party's nominee.

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