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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : No Summer Lull for Feinstein, Huffington : Traditionally, the heavy slugging doesn't start till fall. But the attack ads already are flying fast and furious in what many expect will be the costliest upper-house race in U.S. history.

July 04, 1994|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than a month after the two U.S. Senate candidates engaged in their first television clash, both sides are locked in a multimillion-dollar exchange of attack commercials that has left experts wondering when the fighting will end.

Last week, for the second time in the race, Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) responded almost overnight to a new commercial from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, proving again just what a candidate willing to spend millions of his own dollars can accomplish.

As a result, the traditional summer lull when campaigns usually regroup and prepare for the fall has been delayed longer than some expected. And although the race is expected to temporarily cool soon, what is at stake for the White House and the two national political parties in the California race also is likely to keep it on high alert throughout the summer.

"It's crazy; it's a marathon," said Huffington campaign manager Bob Schuman. "We are kind of in a fall mode already. There was no lull after the primary. . . . I just don't know where it goes next."

So far, the campaign has been dominated by both candidates trying to spotlight the other's flaws.

Feinstein has sought to define her opponent by charging that he is not a Californian because he moved to the state in 1991. She has also accused him of inadequately representing his constituents in Congress.

Huffington, meanwhile, has tried to tap voters' anger with government by portraying Feinstein as a typical politician controlled by powerful special interests.

Huffington made that point in his last television commercial with one of the most vicious attacks of the campaign: "Feinstein is a special-interest jukebox--put in your money and get what you want."

The 30-second spot was made in Washington and shipped to California through special fiber-optic lines just hours after Feinstein's second ad of the campaign hit the state's airwaves.

In the Democratic commercial, workers at a manufacturing company in Huffington's congressional district complain that the GOP lawmaker refused to help them gain access to a foreign market and that their jobs were saved only when Feinstein stepped in. The reference was to Raytheon Corp. and the Clinton Administration's recent action to allow it and other U.S. companies to sell military technology to Taiwan.

Last fall, Huffington declined Raytheon's request for help, saying it would put him in the role of a lobbyist for a single corporation. When Raytheon subsequently went to Feinstein, she wrote letters to the Administration on behalf of the company.

Huffington's response ad charged that Feinstein was motivated to help Raytheon by two $1,000 contributions the company gave her within days of her letters--one to Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the other to the White House.

But Feinstein's campaign says voters will see that the senator was trying to help the struggling California economy and save jobs.

"It came down to a decision of, basically, did we want to have California jobs go to France or stay in America?" said Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata. "You cannot portray these workers in his county as being some evil interest. He should be ashamed of himself."

The ongoing television feud confirms an assessment of this race by political insiders who now believe that Feinstein will have a tough fight for reelection, that the race will be particularly nasty and that it will probably be the most expensive Senate contest in the nation's history.

By mid-May, finance records showed Huffington had spent more than $6 million of his own money on the campaign, money he made in the 1990 sale of his family's Texas petroleum company.

Since then, his campaign has been on television almost uninterruptedly at a cost estimated by political media buyers at from $200,000 to $700,000 per week. His move last week to respond quickly to Feinstein was exceptionally expensive, buyers said, because Huffington was forced to pay premium rates for purchasing specific times at the last minute.

Feinstein's campaign also has been on television consistently for the past four weeks. But media buyers estimated that she has spent slightly less than Huffington in the same period.

With more money, Huffington's campaign has proven itself to be tough on both offense and defense. In the spring, he attacked Feinstein's record in Washington for weeks, causing her support to shrink and opinion polls to tighten. Then, when she tried to fight back with her own message, he quickly counterattacked.

"Most competitive political campaigns are about allocating scarce resources and, many times, who wins or loses is determined by who strategically plays the game better," said Republican political consultant Sal Russo. "When you have as much money as Huffington is willing to commit to this campaign, he has eliminated one major reason why most campaigns lose."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate School, said Huffington also has been helped by his quick responses.

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