WASHINGTON — It was late afternoon when Larry McCarthy arrived at the recording studio where he would begin constructing his next political commercial.
As the 42-year-old video craftsman, whose ads have shaped the images of Presidents, worked into the night, 3,000 miles away Sen. Dianne Feinstein was starting to broadcast the first television ad of her reelection campaign--a blistering attack on McCarthy's client, Republican challenger Mike Huffington.
McCarthy had only a few hours to work. For even as the counterattack flickered to life on the screens of the dimly lighted studio, Huffington media buyers were lining up air time for the next day.
The 30-second ad took about seven hours to make. By the time McCarthy left the studio, shortly before midnight, he had listened to the opening line so many times it echoed in his head: "As polls show her dropping, Feinstein attacks Mike Huffington on taxes." Tomorrow, he knew, more than 10 million Californians would hear that line about the time they sat down to the evening news.
Political observers across the country are watching California's U.S. Senate race like a bunch of car lovers mesmerized by a Ferrari Testarossa. A formidable incumbent and early favorite has been forced into a fight for survival by a wealthy, once obscure, freshman congressman willing to bankroll the most expensive congressional campaign in history.
In a state the size of California, campaigns are measured in their ability to deliver their messages, and Huffington has been offering a unique display of the political power of money and television.
Good ideas and popular issues are important, but they are like a powerful train with no track to run on unless a candidate can reach the voters through TV.
Most candidates can only afford to use television selectively, often saving for a big push in the final days before the election. Huffington, catapulted into the spotlight by several million dollars in ads, moved from being virtually unknown statewide to running nearly even with Feinstein in the polls by early summer.
Late in the primary campaign, a worried Feinstein decided to launch her own TV ads. Huffington's staff--including a dream team of veteran strategists--responded quickly and forcefully to every Feinstein commercial. In some cases, McCarthy and the Huffington team worked around the clock and coast to coast, to create, produce and distribute a direct response ad in less than 24 hours.
And whatever television time Feinstein purchased, the Huffington team bought more.
When the two-month cross fire ended in August, a statewide poll found Feinstein clinging to a six-point lead, about the same one she held in June.
"I've never seen it (a candidate's counterattack) done this fast before," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "The bottom-line effect is that it just cuts off the effectiveness of many (of Feinstein's) charges."
Most professional campaign managers can only fantasize about such response, particularly so early and often in a campaign. Feinstein, for example, has responded directly to only one of Huffington's critical ads--and then after a six-day lag.
Observers from both major parties say Huffington's quick-response strategy is what you would expect if you combined a team of top national strategists with enough money to finance their best ideas.
When Huffington's counterattacks began, finance records show, his campaign was spending more than $100,000 a day, much of it on television. At the same time, Feinstein, one of Washington's top fund-raisers was spending $62,000 a day on her campaign, also largely on TV ads.
"To be real candid, I have never worked on a campaign with an open budget--and I work on many campaigns all over the country," said David Bienstock, a Republican media strategist currently with Gov. Pete Wilson's reelection campaign. "It must be very difficult for Feinstein."
Feinstein adviser William Carrick acknowledges that his side is well aware of Huffington's techniques. "I'm glad that we have held our own while we've been outspent 3-to-2," he said. "It was our intention to keep him from getting up any head of steam."
Last-minute decisions in a political campaign can be expensive and difficult. When Huffington decided to respond quickly to Feinstein's attack barrage in June, he paid premium rates for some of the broadcast time. One Democratic media buyer said Huffington paid $18,000 for a spot in Los Angeles that bumped another commercial from its prime-time slot.
The logistics are also daunting. After the first quick-response commercial was produced in Washington, D.C., more than 40 videotapes had to be delivered to TV stations throughout California hours later. The video was transmitted cross-country through fiber-optic cables. Then, for some remote stations, copies were flown out of San Francisco by a campaign staff member.