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ON CALIFORNIA

The 'Huff' Bangs Into a Big Wall

October 05, 1994|PETER H. KING

Michael Roy Huffington Jr. is having a bad week. Here he is, trying to purchase a U.S. Senate seat in his own, quiet way, and no one will leave him alone. Doonesbury is poking fun at his wife and her connections to a New Age guru. Tom Bradley, the former L.A. mayor, is calling press conferences to suggest that Huffington is insensitive to racial issues. And the national magazines are all over him.

"Should the Huffingtons be stopped?" Time asks in a headline. "When you catch up with him," the reporter observes, "he still doesn't seem to be there." The New Yorker is out with a biting profile, titled, "The candidate, his wife, and her guru." And fax machines deliver advance copies of an even deadlier expose to appear in Vanity Fair.

"Once in a while," this piece quotes a Santa Barbara Republican activist as saying, "you can actually get a complete idiot elected to the U.S. Senate, and it could happen again."

Why, the Huff must now be asking himself, is everybody picking on him? What happened to those good old days of August and early September? In those happy times, the formula seemed simple. Huffington had a job he wanted and millions of dollars from his father's oil fortune to spend making sure he got it. All he needed to do was appear in television commercials. The only issue would be his opponent, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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Feinstein, Huffington snorted, actually believed in government. He did not. He believed in "a government that does nothing." He was an accessory to his own campaign; his positions were less relevant than the opportunity he presented as protest vehicle. Don't like government? Huffington's campaign cooed: Here is your man. In this way, Huffington fell into line behind Ross and Jerry and the rest of the newfangled protest candidates, and at first his climb up the polls was fast and easy.

This week, it began to get tougher. Throughout the campaign, Huffington had leaned heavily on his wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, an author and talk show host and former--she says--minister in the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness. She was good at fencing with reporters and debating her husband's opponents, but this role also left her fair game. She was more a candidate than the candidate himself, and as these new magazine pieces demonstrate, she made for livelier copy.

Here, for example, is Vanity Fair, describing how in their new Santa Barbara mansion she "issued orders over a speaker phone from the bathtub. . . . Worse still were slurs overheard by the staff about 'stupid and lazy' Mexican help at a time when Huffington was trying to target Latino votes in his district." The piece went on to describe incidents that question the Huffingtons' much-ballyhooed call to replace government welfare with private charity, suggesting their favorite charity was free publicity for themselves.

And here is the New Yorker, making the case that Huffington is but a "host body" for his wife's ambitions, which lead to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: "Huffington," Barney Klinger, a Republican stalwart, tells the magazine, "would make a very, very good apprentice at a McDonald's. He's totally devoid of any intelligence. . . . You can never get through to him. No decisions are made without going through Arianna."

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These snippets only hint at the Huffington material available at the nearest newsstand. They are sufficient, though, to make the larger point: The Huff's days as a stealth candidate, rising quietly in the polls while Californians snicker at his Texas eccentricities, are finished.

He has hit a bump in the road, one that has tripped similar candidacies. As long as the world believes a protest candidate has no chance, the livin' is easy. It was fun to root for Ross Perot, knowing the little fellow wouldn't get over the top. Similarly, Jerry Brown was left alone to frolic on talk shows across America, steadily gaining ground--until he won the Connecticut primary. Shortly thereafter, his campaign was crushed.

What Huffington did to deserve all this attention was to pull even in the polls with Feinstein. That changed everything. Interestingly, many of the disclosures had been printed previously in California newspapers, but no one seemed to pay much attention. Then. They will now.

In a way, it's a compliment to Huffington, albeit a potentially lethal one. He will be examined seriously now as a potential U.S. senator, and not merely a protest vehicle. His days of hiding in the shadows, chucking darts at his opponent, are done. Feinstein is no longer the only issue. The real Michael Huffington also is an issue. People will want to know about his character and his past and his plans. They will want to know about his wife and her guru. The Huff might not have seen his last bad week.

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