THE most expensive Senate race in US history has moved into the national spotlight as a nationwide debate swirls over the influence of personal wealth versus special-interest money in politics.
The challenge by oil millionaire US Rep. Michael Huffington (R) to take the California Senate seat now held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) also has campaign reformers examining the growing vulnerability of larger states to media image-building by candidates as a substitute for face-to-face voter contact.
Since early summer, challenger Huffington has spent a reported $700,000 to $800,000 per week on television ads trying to unseat 18-month incumbent Feinstein. His total outlay come election day is expected to top $20 million. The Feinstein camp will spend most of its donated $9.5 million campaign chest in the next four weeks.
``The entire country is watching this race to see if America's largest state rejects experience, talent, and record of achievement to go with a guy that has next to no record and loads of money,'' says Joe Cerrell, chairman emeritus of the American Association of Political Consultants.
By attacking the long record of Ms. Feinstein and outspending her 10-1 so far, Mr. Huffington has been able to portray her as a political insider, soft on crime, and a liberal spender, as dissatisfied voters call for more criminals in jail, and more fiscal responsibility.
That strategy has brought Huffington from 26 points behind last winter to dead even in two major recent polls. A third gave Feinstein a slight edge after she began to unleash her own ads against Huffington.
Under one analysis, Huffington's money can be seen by voters as a way of keeping clean of undue influence by not owing donors any special favors after election time. By another, it can be seen simply as a way to ``buy'' an election.
``The important lesson this tells us about California politics is that running for state office has been reduced to two tasks - raising money and putting ads on TV,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. ``Huffington has made the evolution of politics even starker by refusing to talk to the press and engage voters in spontaneous discussion.''
A political novice, Huffington spent nearly $6 million of his own money in 1992 to win election to Congress, representing a district in Santa Barbara. His personal fortune is estimated at $70 million from a Texas oil business he inherited from his father.
Feinstein has been in politics for more than 20 years, serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, as mayor, and now 18 months in the US Senate, helping to shepherd through key bills on crime, immigration, and the environment.
In their first - and most predict only - debate, Feinstein and Huffington last week exchanged barbs in a 60-minute joint appearance on CNN's ``Larry King Live.''
The first-term Republican congressman attacked Feinstein as a tax-and-spend liberal while she characterized him as a do-nothing House member who voted against funds for abortions for poor women, US defense, and the Border Patrol.
Huffington denounced Feinstein as one of the biggest spenders in the Senate and a supporter of President Clinton's 1993 budget bill as ``the largest tax increase in history.''
Feinstein accused Huffington of showing no leadership in his two years in Congress, offering no bills, and no amendments to revise federal spending in line with his conservative views.
After the debate, several analysts said Huffington laid to rest haunting and repeated claims that he was an ``empty suit.''
``Huffington showed that he is a credible contender, far from the flake that some national stories have portrayed him as,'' says Mark DiCamillo, an analyst with the California Poll.
But the debate by no means was a clear victory for either candidate. ``[Huffington] may have outscored Feinstein in making her feel uncomfortable, but he didn't advance any clearer understanding of what he, himself, stands for,'' Mr. DiCamillo says.
Many pundits here feel that as voters now turn their attention more toward the race, Huffington's numbers may suffer. Many articles in national publications have taken a closer look at Huffington, putting him in a more negative light.
``Doonesbury'' cartoonist Garry Trudeau has also made light of repeated claims that Huffington's wife, author Arianna Stassinopoulos, is associated with a New Age religious group. The alleged affiliation has angered Christian right supporters of Huffington and could whittle away needed support.
``The national press has had a field day,'' says DiCamillo. Though Huffington has released position papers detailing standard ``get-government-off-our-backs'' policies on crime, immigration, welfare, taxes, and defense, his inability to point to accomplishments while in office may make him vulnerable in coming weeks.
``You can only tear down your opponent for so long,'' says Steve Zeiger, editor of the California Journal.
``At some point you've got to have something to recommend you. He has very little.''