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Some of Huffington’s Hometown Republicans Turn to Feinstein in Rift

October 19, 1994

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) _ At first glance there was nothing unusual about the scene at Few Oaks mansion, where elegant fund-raisers have yielded small fortunes for Ronald Reagan and other Republican candidates over the years.

But for many of the guests, the night had a surrealistic feel.

The candidate reaping the big bucks - $100,000 from deep-pocket conservatives - wasn’t Michael Huffington, the local Republican congressman seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It was Feinstein.

″It was like an atheist had stepped into the cathedral,″ said Hazel Blankenship, a local GOP activist who switched to the Feinstein camp.

″It was very odd,″ said Feinstein’s host, Barney Klinger, whose past guests have included Republicans Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gov. Pete Wilson.

″She talked about so many things I would have voted against,″ he said. Yet when the polls open on Nov. 8, Klinger, Blankenship and other Republican activists here say they plan to cast ballots for Feinstein.

In the past three years, the local Republican Party has been torn by infighting and disillusionment with the former Texas oil and gas millionaire who moved to California in 1991 and in 1992 spent more than $5 million of his own money to get elected to Congress.

He already has bankrolled his Senate campaign with almost $17 million, a record for personal funds spent on a Senate race.

Huffington, who lost Santa Barbara County to former GOP Rep. William Dannemeyer in the Republican Senate primary, contends the rift is small, and is being exploited by a few disgruntled Republicans still smarting from his upset of longtime Republican Rep. Robert Lagomarsino in 1992.

″It’s not a big rift. There’s one small group, and it’s really about four people who keep fanning the fires,″ he said. ″It’s good to be a good winner and it’s good to be a good loser. You’ve got to do both.″

But even among residents whose only political involvement is to vote, there appears to be suspicion of the motives behind Huffington’s fast and expensive rise in California politics.

In impromptu interviews on the sidewalks of Montecito, the Santa Barbara suburb where Huffington lives, people who identified themselves as Republicans said they probably would vote for Feinstein or will look for a third-party candidate.

″He’s a carpetbagger,″ said Richard Randolph of Santa Barbara. ″He’s just trying to buy an office.″

″I think he decided to be a congressman just to use this as a steppingstone to larger office,″ said Martin Mielko, another Santa Barbara Republican.

In some cases the rift has little to do with politics. Some Republicans say Huffington’s wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, is part of the problem.

Many Huffington foes believe Mrs. Huffington, author of a best-selling biography of Pablo Picasso, provides both the brains and ambition that drive her husband’s campaign.

″The bottom line is, he doesn’t have the intelligence to run for the U.S. Senate,″ said Klinger. ″He would make a good assistant manager trainee for McDonald’s.″

The GOP’s Lincoln Club, a model for local fund-raising efforts during the Reagan and Bush years, is virtually inactive now and many members of the local Republican Central Committee have resigned.

Two key members of the Lincoln Club, Blankenship and Mabel Shults, are working for Feinstein, as is Lagomarsino, the Republican congressman Huffington ousted.

For many, the antipathy toward Huffington stems from his out-of-nowhere 1992 primary victory over Lagomarsino, an 18-year incumbent.

Huffington said he ran for Congress in 1992 believing initially that Lagomarsino was going to compete in another district as a result of reapportionment. By the time he learned that Lagomarsino was running in the Santa Barbara-based 22nd District, it was too late to back out of the race, Huffington said. Lagomarsino calls that explanation ″baloney.″

Among other reasons for the GOP rift:

- Despite assurances that he would serve at least two terms in Congress, Huffington announced eight months after taking office that he would challenge Feinstein.

- He rejected Raytheon Inc.’s request for help in getting government permission to sell missile tracking hardware to Taiwan, a deal that would preserve about 250 local jobs. Huffington said he wouldn’t work for a special interest. Feinstein stepped in to help secure the contract.

- Huffington voted against an appropriations bill that included money for Santa Barbara’s Metropolitan Transit District.

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