California Dreamin'

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Giving Dianne Feinstein a run for her money

ON ONE WALL OF CALIFORNIA congressman Michael Huffington's office is a photograph of fellow Republican Jimmy Stewart, who played Jefferson Smith, the gangly hero of Frank Capra's 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When Huffington saw a rented video of the film about six months ago, he says he wept. "There is a lot in me that's similar to what that movie represented," explains Huffington, who is battling Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein, 61, for her U.S. Senate seat. The Texas-born Huffing-ton, 47, who has bucked lobbyists and GOP leaders on some hot-button issues—he is generally pro-choice and pro-gun control and supports the right of gays to serve in the military—likes to see himself as a straight-shooting maverick. "I said, 'This is what I stand for,' " Huffington drawls. "And by gosh, I voted the way I said."

But another photo in Huffington's lobby shows a less homespun side of the congressman. It is a picture of San Simeon, the grandiose seaside castle of publisher William Randolph Hearst. Here, too, are some parallels. Worth at least $75 million (mostly from his share of profits after the 1990 sale of Huffco, his family's oil-and-gas business), Huffington lives at Villa Ruscello, a $4.3 million Mediterranean-style palazzo on 4½ oceanside acres in Montecito, Calif.—100 miles south of San Simeon. He also owns a stately, equally pricey stone house in the exclusive Foxhall Road section of Washington. Such wealth—and his willingness to use it for his own political ends—has led critics to accuse him of buying his way into the Capitol. Huffington scoffs at such charges. But he won't deny that wealth has its advantages. "It can get your name recognition up," he says.

Also in Huffington's office is a portrait of the woman many observers call his mainspring: his wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 44, a Greek-born, Cambridge-schooled socialite-author known for her spicy best-selling biographies of Maria Callas (1981) and Pablo Picasso (1988) and for her latest book, The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul, in which she asserts that the way to spiritual fulfillment is through good deeds. She also touts that philosophy on her interview show, Critical Mass, seen on the conservative National Empowerment Television network.

To some, Michael Huffington is a cipher manipulated by the canny Arianna—"the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers," as a Los Angeles magazine once called her. "Her Brains, His Money," sniped a Washington Post headline. "When you look into his eyes," observes Santa Barbara millionaire Barney Klinger, a longtime GOP fund-raiser who supports Feinstein, "you see the back of his head." Huffington supporter Larry Crandell, another Santa Barbara businessman, counters that "Michael is very keen mentally—he's just not a spellbinder." Adds Ed Rollins, Huffington's chief strategist: "He's a very strong-willed guy. It does him a great injustice to say anybody's the power behind him." Huffington bristles at those who demean his intellect. "I remember making over 700 on my math SATs," he says. As for his wife's ambition, he insists, "I'm the guy who has the power drive here. I'm the guy on the front line. She ain't."

Still, the intensely private Huffington generally avoids the limelight while Arianna works the stump, voicing the central theme of his campaign: that altruism (the "fourth instinct") should replace federal welfare programs. But the bulk of the Huffington campaign is taking place on television. Michael is expected to shell out as much as $25 million of his own money to fight Feinstein—more than double the previous Senate record, set by West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller in 1984—mainly on TV spots fashioned by Larry McCarthy, creator of the highly effective, much-criticized Willie Horton ad for George Bush in 1988. One of the spots charges that in 1985 Feinstein, as mayor of San Francisco, declared her city "a safe haven for illegal aliens, in defiance of federal law." Actually she signed a nonbinding—and legal—resolution informing officials that they were not obligated to report undocumented aliens from Guatemala and El Salvador, two countries then embroiled in civil wars. Huffington also skewers Feinstein for relying on contributions from business and labor, instead of her own reported $50 million fortune, to fund her reelection bid. "She's a special-interest slot machine," he says. "Put money in, and you get something back."

Feinstein's camp, meanwhile, needles Huffington for "buying" his House seat in 1992, when he spent a record $5.2 million of his own funds to unseat nine-term GOP incumbent Robert Lagomarsino, and for refusing to release his tax returns. (He feels it is "an invasion of privacy," according to Rollins.) But Huffington has made undeniable progress: last April he was 26 points behind in the Field poll; by September, the poll had them dead even at 43 percent apiece, with 14 percent undecided or backing minor candidates.

Born in Dallas, Roy Michael Huffington Jr. repeatedly points out that he was not a child of privilege ("I used to mow lawns when I was a kid"). In 1956 his father, Roy Sr., a Humble Oil geologist (now 76 and worth some $310 million), started Huffco with $2,000 in the bank. The company hit the jackpot in 1971, when it tapped into a huge Indonesian gas reserve. Michael, meanwhile, graduated from Stanford and Harvard Business School and worked in banking, first in Chicago, then in Houston. In 1976 he joined Huffco as vice chairman, and 10 years later—in part as a reward for his family's GOP campaign donations, according to the Los Angeles Times—Michael was appointed a deputy assistant secretary of defense. "His schedule would typically have a lunch on it," recalls his Pentagon supervisor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney, now director of the Center for Security Policy, a research group in Washington. "And that would sort of be it."

Huffington had met Arianna one year earlier at a San Francisco reception thrown by heiress Ann Getty. Daughter of an Athenian publisher, Arianna was moving up in New York society and had written several books. "What is the most important thing in your life?" Huffington asked Arianna that very first night. When the 5'10" redhead answered, "God," Michael recalls, "I thought, 'Great, I like where she's coming from.' For someone to come up with that answer so quickly meant they were deep." Arianna's reaction was more gut level: "The minute he walked in, I felt butterflies."

Their 1986 New York City wedding was a glittering event. Barbara Walters was a bridesmaid; Norman Mailer, Shirley MacLaine and Helen Gurley Brown attended. According to guest Henry Kissinger, the wedding featured everything "except an Aztec sacrificial fire dance." The Huffingtons now have two daughters, Christina, 5, and Isabella, 3.

During the campaign, Arianna has weathered criticism for being a minister in the Movement of Spiritual and Inner Awareness, a group that some call a cult, led by ex-English teacher John-Roger, who claims he became imbued with a divine spirit, the Mystical Traveler, following a kidney-stone operation in 1963. Since her husband declared his candidacy, Arianna has backed away from John-Roger. She now calls him merely a friend and answers questions about him testily. ("What is the Mystical Traveler? I don't know, and I don't really care.")

Still, there is something otherworldly about the couple and their race for the Senate. Michael (an Episcopalian) says he became "psychologically prepared" to challenge Feinstein after three days of prayer at Simonopetra, a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. "I think that's where he had a great sense about the crisis we are facing as a nation," says Arianna. "We could say, 'Wait,' but these are not normal times."

JOHN HANNAH in MontecUo and MARGIE SELINGER in Washington

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