LOS ANGELES — FOR a while there, it seemed like United States Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) might glide through her reelection bid this year with roller-bearing ease.
No challenger had yet emerged within her own party, and it looked like the only GOP opposition she might face came from former congressman William Dannemeyer, a feisty but fringy conservative, and a handful of lesser-known Republicans.
But then, suddenly, freshman Congressman Michael Huffington (R) jumped into the fray, which normally wouldn't cause any triple-lutz anxiety among Democrats, except for one thing: the size of his wallet.
In 1992, Mr. Huffington, the son of a Texas oil man, spent more than $5 million of his own money in winning a congressional seat from Santa Barbara, the most of any candidate for the United States House in history.
Now this ``Perot by the sea,'' as he has been dubbed, is focusing on making it to the Senate.
Though the early outlook is that Senator Feinstein will be difficult to unseat, the entrance of Mr. Huffington will liven up the GOP primary and makes the chance of a Democratic coronation in the fall less automatic.
``You cannot write this guy off,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. ``You can't write anybody off who has $16 to $18 million [to spend]. It will make Feinstein focus.''
The race will garner its share of national attention. Republicans are hoping to chip away at the Democratic lead in the Senate. They have had triumphs in several important races since President Clinton took office and know the party in the White House usually has troubles in midterm elections.
Also, California lately has had a senator from each party. That ended in 1992 when Feinstein won the race to fill out the rest of the term of Republican Pete Wilson, who became governor, and Barbara Boxer (D) won the other seat.
Republicans pine to retake one, if not both, of these positions, though many analysts think they will have a better chance against Ms. Boxer later.
On one level, the entrance of Mr. Huffington into the race is a plus for the Feinstein camp because there will be quarreling on the Republican side. Mr. Dannemeyer, a fervant anti-abortion, anti-tax, anti-homosexual champion, accuses Mr. Huffington, who voted to allow gays in the military and favors abortion rights, of being ``liberal'' like Feinstein. And the Santa Barbara congressman is inexperienced and out to buy his way into office, Dannemeyer charges. But Huffington is a self-described fiscal conservative.
The third major Republican in the race, Kate Squires, is a little-known Riverside businesswoman. She and Dannemeyer will have to raise prodigious sums if they are to get their message out. ``Dannemeyer will be campaigning with a megaphone and Huffington will have a bull horn,'' says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant. ``A bull horn always reaches more voters.''
Huffington has said he plans to spend at least $5 million of his own money on the campaign and amass another $10 million from individuals, which would give him double the amount that Feinstein spent on her 1992 race. He says he is willing to use his own money to gain name recognition and to make changes in America.
The wealth issue will be a delicate one. While some may chafe at the size of his bank account - particularly since he is seeking a Senate seat before his first term in Congress is even up - others may see use of his own money as an insulation against being beholden to special interests.
To shape what people think, Huffington is already airing TV spots. One portrays the former investment banker, worth an estimated $60 million, as having roots in a middle-class childhood and public schools.
Huffington is closely allied with and has helped bankroll a ``three strikes and you're out'' crime initiative. He paints Feinstein as too liberal.
But Feinstein, a supporter of the death penalty, is not soft on crime and is considered in the mainstream of California voters on most other issues. She has been visible in her short time in the Senate.
``I'm not sure there are too many chinks in her armor,'' says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.