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THE TIMES POLL : Huffington Cuts Feinstein Lead to a Few Points


Republican U.S. Senate challenger Mike Huffington has crept to within a few points of Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein, suggesting that the hard-fought, frequently nasty contest may go down to the wire with the outcome highly in doubt, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Feinstein leads by 4 points among registered voters, 46% to 42%, and her margin narrows to 3 points among likely voters, 48% to 45%. Just two weeks ago, Feinstein enjoyed a 9-point lead among registered voters and a 7-point margin among likely voters.

"The lead is within the poll's margin of error," poll Director John Brennan said.

But the poll--conducted before the disclosure of Huffington's employment of an illegal immigrant as a nanny--illustrated that despite spending more than $25 million so far to vanquish Feinstein, Huffington remains an enigma to much of the electorate. Asked what they think of the Santa Barbara congressman, 27% of voters said they liked him and 44% disliked him--with 23% saying they did not know enough about him to make a judgment.

"After all this television, he goes into the final weeks of the election with almost a quarter of the voters unsure," Brennan said.

Feinstein is liked by 41% and disliked by 45%, with only 10% saying they were unsure of her. Important to Feinstein, she is ahead among those who are uncertain about Huffington.

And Feinstein's supporters are more committed to her than Huffington's are to him. According to the poll, only 73% of the Republican congressman's supporters described themselves as "certain" to vote for him. Of Feinstein's backers, 81% said they would definitely vote for her.

The Feinstein-Huffington contest has attracted national attention for the vociferousness of the mutual attacks. Both candidates have leveled harsh accusations against their opponent and have angrily denounced the assaults made on them.

By Oct. 19, the end of the last financial reporting period, they jointly had spent almost $36 million, breaking the record for spending in a U.S. Senate race.

Most of the money spent by Huffington, the heir to a Texas oil and natural gas fortune, has come from his own bank account.

But according to the poll, the negative advertising the candidates have splashed across California television screens is coming back to haunt them both: 11% who dislike Huffington cite his ads as a reason, as do 8% of those who dislike Feinstein.

"Basically, both of these people are disliked," Brennan said.

The Times Poll questioned 1,235 registered voters, of whom 762 are considered likely to vote Nov. 8. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is 3 percentage points in either direction; for likely voters it is 4 points in either direction. Margins of error for smaller subgroups may be larger. Participants were questioned Oct. 22-25.

According to the poll, no single reason accounts for the tightening of the Senate race, and the outcome may depend on voter turnout.

The poll was taken after both candidates had announced positions on the controversial anti-illegal immigration initiative, Proposition 187--Feinstein opposes it, Huffington supports it. But that issue was a wash among voters, with equal percentages of people saying they were more likely or less likely to vote for each candidate because of their position.

Additionally, the poll was concluded before The Times reported that for more than fours years Huffington had employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny for his two children.

The latest Los Angeles Times Poll demonstrated once again the stunning impact that Huffington's accumulated commercials have had on Feinstein, once the most popular politician in the state. In March, 1994, before Huffington began dominating the airwaves, Feinstein received favorable ratings from 63% of registered voters--meaning that she has fallen 22 points over the course of the campaign.

But the first-term senator, who rolled to victory in 1992 against little-known Republican appointee John Seymour, maintains a stable standing among voters. In the last six weeks, her favorability ratings have not markedly changed.

Feinstein is running well among more dependable older voters, winning the 65 and older age group 48% to 39%, and those 45 to 64 years old by a margin of 49% to 41%. The candidates essentially split the votes of those under age 45, who are historically less apt to vote.

But Feinstein is having trouble hanging on to her Democratic base. Among Democratic men, 22% said they would vote for Huffington, as did 20% of Democratic women. That is more than double the percentage of defectors that Feinstein saw in her 1992 race against Seymour, who won only 11% of Democratic men and 7% of Democratic women.

To make it worse, Feinstein also is not doing as well attracting Republican women as she did in 1992. Exit polls taken in November, 1992, showed that Feinstein won the votes of 26% of Republican women, while only 15% say they support her now.

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