LOS ANGELES — WHO says money doesn't count?
Just a few months ago, Democrat Dianne Feinstein seemed a shoo-in for reelection to the US Senate from California - one of the most important races in this state this year, and to the White House as well.
Now, suddenly, she is peering over her shoulder at a fast-closing rival, Rep. Michael Huffington (R). The wealthy first-term congressman has spent more than $2 million of his own money on television ads so far. Though he still must overcome primary challengers - and Ms. Feinstein has to be considered the front-runner - the race is likely to be close.
``Feinstein is going to have a tough campaign,'' says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant not tied to any of the candidates.
The race is of particular interest to the White House, both for what it means for retaining Democratic control of the Senate and for President Clinton in 1996. California will be critical to his reelection effort. Keeping both Senate seats in Democratic hands (the other is held by Barbara Boxer) would help. Ideally, the Democrats would like to complete the troika by taking the governor's mansion from Republican Pete Wilson (R).
Feinstein has been a strong supporter of the president in the Senate. Though they harbored differences early on - over military base closings, environmental issues, and the North American Free Trade Agreement - their agendas have dovetailed of late, particularly as the California economy has improved. Feinstein has worked closely with the administration in securing earthquake relief and defense conversion funds.
Equally important, she represents the kind of moderate ``New Democrat,'' pro-death-penalty, tough on crime, environmentally sensitive, but not anti-business - that the president often tries to bill himself as.
``She is a good bellwether,'' says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. ``They rise and fall together.''
Thus, it's not surprising that Mr. Clinton was at a fund-raiser for Feinstein in Beverly Hills on May 20, his second campaign appearance on her behalf and 12th visit to the state since taking office. She will need the money.
Mr. Huffington has indicated his willingness to spend as much as $15 million of his own money to win the seat. The son of a Texas oil magnate, he put more than $5 million into his congressional campaign in 1992.
He has been on the air with TV ads for several months, building up his own name-recognition and attacking Feinstein's record - particularly her vote in favor of the administration's spending and deficit reduction package last fall, containing the ``biggest tax increase in American history.'' The ads have been effective.
In a poll released last week, the freshman congressman trailed the incumbent by just 7 points, 48 to 41, down from a 26-point edge a month ago.
He also led his nearest rival on the Republican side, former Rep. William Dannemeyer, by 16 points. The state primary is June 7.
``Even with the most popular incumbent, there is always something a challenger can seize upon,'' says Mervin Field, the veteran pollster. ``It is not so much Huffington who has gained. It is that he has been able to cut Feinstein down.''
Nonplussed, the Feinstein camp says it was inevitable that the numbers would be close. Aides note that the senator hasn't really begun to campaign yet. If Huffington emerges as the eventual challenger, Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata says there will be flaws in his record to highlight: that he is an outsider - a ``carpetbagger'' (from Texas) - has accomplished nothing while in Congress, and is trying to buy his Senate seat.
The Feinstein campaign is expected to raise about $10 million by the fall. Since her failed gubernatorial bid in 1990, she has taken in more than $30 million in contributions.
The visibility that this amount of money has bought is one reason Huffington says he is spending so much of his own currency now.
Pundits still give the edge to Feinstein.
``The right wing will reluctantly support Huffington,'' says Mr. Hoffenblum. ``The left wing will reluctantly support Feinstein. The question is, what will the center do?''