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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Huffington Encounters Snags on Campaign Trail


Republican Senate candidate Mike Huffington campaigned Wednesday on familiar topics--taxes and immigration--in familiar territory--San Diego and Los Angeles--but that didn't prevent his day from being bumpier than he bargained for.

The freshman congressman from Santa Barbara stopped first in San Diego, where he spoke about immigration and Proposition 187, and then in Los Angeles, where he won the endorsement of the National Taxpayers Union.

But at his San Diego appearance, Huffington found himself in an often rambling 45-minute discussion with a small group that spent more time talking than he did. And one audience member was openly frustrated that his only question was brushed aside by the candidate.

And while receiving the endorsement of the taxpayers' group, Huffington and the group's president were quizzed about why the organization recently listed him as among the members of Congress who have voted for large federal outlays despite having promised significant spending cuts.

Still, both events served to sharpen Huffington's key themes in his fierce, multimillion-dollar bid to defeat Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose principal campaign stop Wednesday was in her rival's home turf of Santa Barbara. There, Feinstein received law enforcement endorsements, including those of the police chiefs of the cities of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo and the sheriffs of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

At his Los Angeles appearance, Huffington hoped to counter recent questions about his spending record in Congress with the endorsement of the Washington-based taxpayers group.

"The defining difference between Dianne Feinstein and me is the difference between night and day, Main Street and the Beltway, the future and the past," Huffington said. "She treats taxpayers like servants of the federal government--rather than seeing the federal government as servants of the people."

But even as he praised Huffington's record, David Keating, the group's president, was pressed to explain why the organization recently listed the congressman as among 31 federal legislators who have voted for large federal expenditures after pledging to support big spending cuts. That list, published in the Wall Street Journal under the heading "Hypocrisy Index," has been used in a recent Feinstein commercial to attack Huffington.

"I would say the real hypocrisy is Sen. Feinstein running ads that claim (Huffington's) record somehow is hypocritical on taxes and spending," Keating said, "because while it is not the best record in the Congress, it is far, far better than her record."

But, a reporter asked Keating, what about the recent description of Huffington as a "fiscal liberal" by another of the group's board members?

"He is mistaken," Keating said.

In San Diego, Huffington stressed his support for Proposition 187, the controversial ballot measure that seeks to cut all government services for undocumented aliens.

"In the last couple of years, the anger over illegal immigration has spilled over to legal immigrants and that is really unfair," Huffington said. "There are a lot . . . of legal immigrants who are as patriotic, if not more patriotic, than those of us who were born here. And we don't want that divisiveness."

But that goal seemed to belie the emotions surrounding the issue. On Tuesday, only hours before Huffington's visit, opponents staged a demonstration in San Diego against the measure. And during his meeting, the frustration over illegal immigration was palpable.

"We're overwhelmed," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 4,500 Border Patrol employees, almost all of them officers.

Later, one woman told Huffington, "I heard one member of a (local) church say . . . that Jesus was a migrant and that therefore we should welcome everyone in. Now that kind of rhetoric is very hurtful . . . and it's wrong."

Not everyone at the meeting was interested only in immigration--though that was the only topic that Huffington was prepared to discuss.

James M. Davis, a retired real estate investor and rock-ribbed Republican, unsuccessfully tried to ask Huffington about a recent Feinstein commercial accusing the congressman of owing back taxes--a charge that he has denied.

But Huffington interrupted Davis' question and never got back to it--a slight that slightly frustrated Davis.

"I wanted to hear his response," said Davis, who nevertheless said he would vote for Huffington, answer or no.

Still, Huffington's San Diego appearance clearly did not energize the group of party loyalists. One said: "I wish he could be a stronger candidate."

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