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Bitterly Fought Senate Race Too Close to Call


California's bruising and costly U.S. Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Mike Huffington was coming down to the wire early today as results indicated that the race was still too close to call.

Feinstein, who was outspent more than 2 to 1 in the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history, appeared shortly after midnight at her election party in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. She told supporters that the final results would probably not be known until this morning.

She indicated she had planned to talk about her future plans, but decided to wait. "I'm not going to do this tonight because obviously we need to know what these election results are," she said as the audience chanted, "Dianne! Dianne!"

"But I want you to be encouraged," she said. "Because I have worked hard for the people of California."

Hadley Roff, chief of Feinstein's staff in California, said early today that it is possible that the race could hang in the balance for days while absentee ballots turned in at the polls Tuesday are counted.

Caren Daniels-Meade, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said there may be 500,000 to 700,000 uncounted ballots, most of them absentee ballots. "There are a number of races at this point in time that appear to be too close to call."

Huffington appeared with his supporters at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Orange County about 11:15 p.m.

"I wanted to come down because I didn't want all of you to go home," he told a cheering crowd that waved Huffington placards. "We'll be back down again later tonight. . . . It is clear, watching what is happening across the country, that the Republicans are having an unbelievable victory. And what we want to do in California tonight is to add to that victory."

Earlier, when Huffington spoke briefly with reporters, he was asked if the bumpy campaign was worth it. "It's been very worth it," the candidate answered. "All of us are on this planet to do good for somebody."

Huffington's wife, Arianna, an internationally known author, also smiled and said of the campaign: "Maybe there's a book in it. I'm keeping notes."

Feinstein, who rode a Democratic momentum into office in 1992, the so-called "Year of the Woman," found herself two years later paddling against a powerful political current. Feinstein ran a campaign about the benefits of government that contrasted with the hostile mood responsible for the historic gains in Congress for Republicans.

In addition, political observers said Feinstein suffered from the poor showing by Democratic colleague Kathleen Brown in the governor's race, and she was hurt by her opposition to Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative.

Huffington, however, spent so much of the campaign attacking Feinstein that polls indicated he never made a strong connection with voters. In addition, his campaign was rocked by press stories critical of his business background, his wife's unconventional religious history and, most recently, his admission that he employed an illegal immigrant in violation of federal law.

The two Senate candidates combined to spend more than $41 million on the race, shattering a 10-year record of $26 million set by North Carolina Sen. Jesse A. Helms and his opponent. Huffington, whose fortune comes from the 1990 sale of his family's Texas oil and gas company, accounted for almost $30 million, nearly double the most ever spent by a non-presidential candidate.

Because of his money, Huffington turned the California race into a high-stakes cliffhanger after it had been considered by most Washington insiders to be one of the surest Democratic bets in the country. Feinstein was an early favorite because she was a veteran of two consecutive statewide campaigns and, in polls, she was rated the most popular politician in California.

But after Huffington spent nearly $6 million on television advertising during the spring, most of it attacking Feinstein's record in the Senate, the incumbent's lead shrank from 30% in a Times Poll in March to single digits by the June 7 primary.

The developments set off alarms at the White House because Huffington's primary criticism of Feinstein last spring was her vote for President Clinton's 1993 economic package. By late May, Feinstein had also quietly dropped her name from a list of senators backing the President's health care plan.

Still, Feinstein maintained a cautious alliance with the President throughout her campaign. Clinton appeared four times with Feinstein.

In June, just days after the polls found the race tightening, Feinstein responded with her first television commercials. But after a summer-long exchange of high-priced attack ads, the polls did not budge. As a result, both campaigns entered the crucial fall period still locked in a close race and having little hope of straying from their attack strategies.

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