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Bitterly Fought Senate Race Too Close to Call

November 09, 1994|DAVE LESHER and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 late Tuesday as results indicated the race was still too close to call.

Feinstein, who was outspent by more than 2 to 1 overall and as much as 3 to 1 on television, watched the returns from her home in San Francisco. The former mayor, who was scheduled to appear later in the night at the Fairmont Hotel, was described as "optimistic" about the outcome and "relieved this race is over."

"We are confident we are going to win . . . but this is a very close race that is going to be decided late into the night," said Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata. "Dianne is going to win by a narrow margin."

Huffington, meanwhile, also remained out of sight at an Orange County hotel where his campaign had planned to share an election night party with the sponsors of Proposition 187.

The Republican candidate spoke briefly with reporters when he arrived at the hotel shortly after the polls closed. "My wife and I are very relaxed," he said.

"Has it been worth it?" one reporter asked.

"It's been very worth it," the candidate answered. "All of us are on this planet to do good for somebody."

Huffington, whose fortune came from the 1990 sale of his family's Texas oil and gas company, also seemed to reflect on polls taken shortly before the election that indicated most California voters do not know or do not like the Republican nominee.

"I want (voters) to get to know me," he said. "You can't do it in a 30-second spot. It's going to take six years for them to get to really know me and my family."

Huffington's wife, Arianna, an internationally known author, also said of the acrimonious and cliffhanging 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, including two early fund-raisers and two events in the last month.

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.

The predictable result was that voters grew to dislike both candidates. Feinstein's favorable rating fell below that for Gov. Pete Wilson and Kathleen Brown. And in a Times Poll just more than a week ago, barely a quarter of respondents said they liked Huffington.

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