Californians like cut of 'empty suit': Do-nothing candidate puts wind up Washington

IT IS 80 degrees in the desert, but the goose-bumps keep coming. Partly, it is the place: Palm Springs, an unreal patch of paradise in a scorched landscape not meant for human habitation. And then, in town for the day, there are the Huffingtons: she, Arianna, wife, New Age mystic. He, Michael, wealthy candidate for the US Senate. It is an unsettling combination: hallucinatory city plays host to weirdo campaign.

But they are both real. This palm-shaded cement fortress against nature, with its sprinkler-drenched lawns, country clubs and celebrity mansions (Bob Hope's is sprawling on the crest of the hill) does exist. And the Huffington run, excoriated by the eastern press, is no mirage either. Mr Huffington might even win, in which case it will be the White House that gets the shivers.

Huffington, who is 47 years old, is a mega-rich Texan (worth about dollars 70m, they say) who came out of nowhere in 1992 to win a race for Congress in Santa Barbara. He had only been in Washington eight months, when - apparently after meditating in a monastery in Greece, his wife's native country - he announced his next move: to challenge California's Democrat incumbent in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, in this year's mid-term elections.

At the start of this year, he was 30 points behind her in the polls. Now, with just over two weeks to election day, he is still behind - but only just. The latest polls give Feinstein a fragile edge, somewhere between at best nine points and as little as three separating them.

He has closed the gap first by spending money. By 8 November, it is likely that he will have splashed out an unprecedented dollars 25m ( pounds 15.5m) on the campaign - a third of his fortune - mostly to pay for pricy airtime for his television spots. But the complaint of his critics that he is buying a Senate berth misses the more important point: Huffington is tapping into the intense voter alienation across America by pledging to be a senator who sits on his hands. He is the anti-Washington, anti-status quo candidate par excellence. As he told Time magazine recently: 'I want a government that does nothing.'

Talk to Californians and you quickly feel the mood. 'Get the government - those snoopy, busybody bureaucrats - out of my face,' demands Hugh Glenn, a gentle-mannered computer consultant in Palm Springs and eager Huffington supporter. Or, from Elan Segura, a Cherokee bartender on Santa Monica's Ocean Avenue: 'There is too much government. That's all the Democrats do - more committees, more regulations. We don't need it.'

And to many, Feinstein represents the worst of the busybodies. 'Send Feinstein to Moscow where she belongs,' says Jim Seabourne, who owns an orchard outside San Bernardino, the easternmost satellite of Los Angeles on the desert's edge. 'This is not the Socialist Republic of the United States.'

The depth of the disenchantment, which comes as California is finally starting to see the effects of the economic recovery, surprises the commentator Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. 'It is a rootless, sour, alienated electorate,' she comments. 'It is truly astounding that there is that anger and that cynicism out there when there is a ray of light that wasn't there two years ago.' For Feinstein, it is cruel reward for a Washington record that by all traditional yardsticks has been exemplary.

But it seems that any kind of Washington record today is poison. 'She has done everything right and in doing so she has been tarred as part of the Washington politics-as-usual problem,' says Bebitch Jeffe.

Huffington, by contrast, has assiduously avoided accumulating a record. As a congressman for the past two years, he has proposed no bills, nor even amendments to bills, and spoken on the House floor for a total of eight minutes (only one minute on legislative business). His attendance record on committees is miserable.

He even looks a nonentity. He is tall and spindly, and his charisma goes no further than his unusually mobile eyebrows. His talent as a public speaker is roughly nil. The East Coast scribblers call him an empty suit. Barney Klinger, a prominent West Coast Republican fund-raiser and Huffington detractor, has said that 'when you look into his eyes you see the back of his head'.

But the empty-vessel image, surely, is the whole idea. The disgruntled among the voters can project on to him all of their wrath and their prejudice without distraction.

And strenuous efforts have been made to protect the Huffington purity by his handlers - a coterie of former Bush and Reagan advisers who together make up one of the highest- grade and most expensive campaign teams ever assembled outside of a presidential race.

Few interviews have been granted, even to the foremost reporters and columnists, and the candidate's rare public appearances have been strictly contained and scripted. The 'bus tour' he and Arianna took through the desert suburbs last week consisted mostly of visits to Republican Party county headquarters. Confrontation with reporters or opponents is zealously avoided.

With his wife, however, the press has found ground for sport. The Cambridge-educated daughter of a Greek publisher, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 44, does have a documented past - and a colourful one. Tall and statuesque, she was a butterfly on the London social scene in the Seventies before departing to New York in 1980. Her pursuit of social position on both sides of the water - as well as her authorship of racy biographies of Maria Callas and Picasso - has led to her famous tag 'the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus'.

Most intriguing have been revelations of ties to a New Age cult called the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, headed by a self-proclaimed American messiah, John-Roger. Arianna, it transpires, was baptised into the following by John-Roger in the waters of the River Jordan and was reportedly ordained as an MSIA minister in 1978. She has disavowed any current links with John- Roger and declared herself at once a born-again Christian and member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The reason any of this matters is the growing conviction that Arianna is more than a traditional wife-of-the-candidate: rather, she is the inspiration - and the ambition - driving him. As Bebitch Jeffe puts it, Arianna is 'the brains and the balls of the campaign'. Frequently, she has stood in as the candidate's surrogate on public occasions - even debating with opponents in the primaries season - while many of her own beliefs in the force of personal altruism and of inner human goodness, detailed in her latest book, The Fourth Instinct: the Call of the Soul, have found their way into her husband's short manifesto. Thus his clarion call to dismantle the welfare state administered from Washington and resort instead to private enterprise and individual volunteerism.

Since the recent flurry of press assaults, Mrs Huffington has been reined in a little. But there is no hiding her engagement. On this day, she is at Michael's side as he takes a rare press conference outside his campaign bus in San Bernardino. She gives as good a performance of the Pat Nixon-Nancy Reagan loving-gaze act as you will ever witness from a candidate's wife. But there is one additional detail: as she watches Michael, her lips sometimes move in sync with the words being spoken by her husband. The ventriloquist has still not completely set free the dummy.

An hour later, Arianna is deputising once again for Michael at a Federated Republican Women's luncheon at the sumptuous Palm Springs restaurant, Melvyns. She entrances her coiffed and pearled audience with bite-sized servings of her philosophy. While the valet boys ready the Bentleys and Lincolns on the drive outside, the ladies murmur 'beautiful, beautiful', as Arianna tells them of how she chanced to meet her husband in 1985 and how coincidences are the 'little miracles that God delivers to us anonymously'.

For the undecided voters, the recent magazine attacks may make a difference, but for the hard-core anti-Washington zealots they almost certainly will not. A Huffington win, meanwhile, though probably still a long shot, would be devastating to Bill Clinton. It would dynamite his all-important base in California and take the Republicans a seat closer to a majority in the Senate.

Victory now would take the Huffingtons one step closer to what is widely believed to be their ultimate ambition: occupancy of the White House itself.

(Photograph omitted)

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