LOS ANGELES — A POLITICAL story gaining momentum here could rewrite the outcomes of this fall's most-watched United States Senate and governors' races and throw a monkey wrench into the 1996 presidential campaign.
In what could be the most expensive US Senate race in history, first-term Rep. Michael Huffington (R) is spending $700,000 to $800,000 a week, by some estimates, in an attempt to unseat incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California this November.
The push is creating an early and strong ripple effect on both fundraising and other strategies from Sacramento to Washington. A 26-point lead that Senator Feinstein held in April was cut to 7 in time for the May primary. Congressman Huffington has produced a race called by most analysts anywhere from a dead heat to a slight Feinstein lead. The contest is bumping the gubernatorial election, in which Republican Pete Wilson, once the lowest-rated governor in California history, is beginning to pull ahead of his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown.
In the Senate race, Huffington is forcing Feinstein to respond with millions in advertising to combat the negative images of her portrayed in his advertisments. Huffington also is trying to pinch the pool of Democratic money available to Brown.
By using his millions in ways that encourage Republicans to get out and vote, Huffington saves Pete Wilson the time, energy, and cost - leaving Wilson even stronger in his tight battle with Brown.
``Huffington's millions are creating major headaches for Brown, Feinstein, Clinton, and all Democrats down the line,'' says Steve Scott, political analyst for the California Journal magazine.
Noting that a Senate win for Feinstein would be more important for Clinton than a Brown gubernatorial win, because Feinstein is a known quantity who already has aided Clinton in several Congressional initiatives, analysts say more emergency help will come Feinstein's way than Brown's in a pinch.
``If Feinstein goes down, all bets are off for Democrats holding onto the Senate,'' says Bob Beckel, a Washington-based Democratic analyst. All this could continue to erode faith in Brown's campaign by the larger donors, including political action committees (PACs) and large businesses. ``If Brown crashes and burns while Wilson gets more than 55 percent of the vote,'' Mr. Scott says, ``he [Wilson] is the anointed Republican front-runner for president in 1996.'' California's winner-take-all primary has been moved from June to March, when it will have more impact on nomination races.
The state also wields power nationally by casting one-fifth of the electoral votes needed (54) for presidential victory.
While Huffington's money blitz has been relentless, it ``has not been without our expectation,'' notes Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata.
``He's already bought one election,'' Mr. Kuwata says, noting Huffington's 1991 congressional win in which he spent a record $5.2 million of his own money. ``Now he's trying to buy another.''
Kuwata says the Feinstein camp has been outspent by Huffinton, 10-to-1, since January (approximately $8 million to $11 million by Huffington to Feinstein's $800,000 to $1 million). But he says Feinstein intends to pump between $8 million to $10 million into her campaign between now and the November election.
``Still, we will be far outspent,'' adds Kuwata, who is highlighting Feinstein's accomplishments over the past 18 months, including an immigration reform bill calling for 600 new agents to guard the US border, and Senate passage of a Desert Protection Act, creating three national parks in California.