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Feinstein Is Apparent Winner in Senate Race : Politics: Experts say lead is probably enough, even with 500,000 uncounted ballots. Huffington refuses to concede.


Democrat Dianne Feinstein was the apparent winner in California's topsy-turvy race for U.S. Senate Wednesday, but the outcome remained so close that Feinstein declined to claim victory and Republican challenger Mike Huffington refused to concede defeat.

In a dramatic finish to the nation's most expensive congressional race in history, state election officials said they expect that the final outcome will not be known until early next week as county registrars tally at least 500,000 absentee ballots that remained uncounted Wednesday.

An analysis of the outstanding ballots indicated that it was all but impossible for Huffington to overcome the 123,610-vote margin that Feinstein won on Election Day. With all of the state's precincts reporting by 4 a.m. Wednesday, Feinstein was ahead 46.6% to 45%, marking just the third time in 60 years that a California senator has won with less than half of the vote.

"I am optimistic that we are going to win this race," Feinstein said at a news conference Wednesday morning in San Francisco, where she described a long and sleepless election night. "I believe the lead is sufficient enough to win the race. . . . Having said that, I recognize there are absentee ballots out there."

One reason for Feinstein's confidence is that Los Angeles County was responsible for a plurality of the outstanding absentee ballots--at least 170,000. Feinstein carried Los Angeles County by more than 11% on Election Day and by about 1% among the absentee ballots already counted in the area.

Overall, Huffington won the absentee ballots already counted statewide by about 6%, according to an exit poll conducted in California's largest 15 counties by The Times. But to win, Huffington officials figured that they must carry the outstanding ballots by a margin of about 21%.

Feinstein's lead is "a big difference to overcome, . . . there is no question about it," said Ken Khachigian, a Huffington adviser. Khachigian said officials were studying the last overtime election when Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren's 1990 victory was not declared until absentee ballot counts were released more than two weeks after the election.

Despite the long odds, Huffington would not admit defeat Wednesday, saying in a written statement that "it is impossible--and completely irresponsible--to declare a winner at this time."

Leaving his Orange County hotel where supporters had gathered the previous night for an election party, Huffington said he still expected to win the race. "I think we will be standing here together again and I'll be claiming victory," said the candidate, who added that he planned to spend time at Disneyland with his daughters.

Huffington, a freshman congressman from Santa Barbara, said he did not expect a recount. Officials from the Republican campaign said they were not aware of any irregularities in the voting that would make them suspect the Election Day total.

"I don't think we're going to need a recount," Huffington said. "I think it will be clear when it's over."

Even as the campaign went into extra innings, strategists were giving their political prognosis of California's electorate. Without a doubt, experts said, it was a race that will become part of the state's political lore.

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, spent almost $30 million from his own pocket, nearly double the most ever spent by a non-presidential candidate.

Feinstein was outspent more than 2 to 1 overall and as much as 3 to 1 on television. In addition, her campaign faced a number of powerful obstacles. The senator bucked the anti-government, anti-Clinton hostility that swept Republicans into power in Congress; she was on the unpopular side of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, and fellow Democrat Kathleen Brown was losing the race for governor so badly that she was damaging the party's other candidates.

At her news conference Wednesday, Feinstein said she also believed that her reelection was complicated by the national Republican tide, which she attributed at least partly to President Clinton's health care plan that she had co-sponsored until May.

"I think one of the issues out there that led to this (GOP victory) was an overreach on health care reform, where people saw the proposals that were made as just so sweeping, so broad, just too much government," she said.

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

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