Huffington buys poll position : Phil Reeves in Sunnyvale, California meets the 'foppish' oil millionaire

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HE HAS been described as a cipher, a Texan with a pocket as deep as his mind is shallow. She has been compared with Imelda Marcos and is labelled by her enemies as 'the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbing'. No one in American political circles struggles for words when it comes to the Huffingtons.

A year ago it was different. Michael Huffington was an obscure first-term US congressman whose only notable characteristics were his wealth and his habit of disappearing for days without telling aides where he was. That, and the fact that he was married to the author and socialite Arianna Stassinopoulos, the erstwhile British quiz- show personality.

But he has since drawn heavily on a largely inherited dollars 70m ( pounds 46m) oil and gas fortune to fund a bid for a seat in the US Senate, spending more personal wealth than any other candidate has ever done in a statewide race. His open wallet has turned what appeared to be a no-hope challenge against Dianne Feinstein, the veteran Californian incumbent, into one of the hottest contests of the forthcoming elections.

Once 30 points behind, he is now almost neck and neck in the polls. With just under four weeks to go, the Democrats are deeply worried: a Republican victory would bode ill for Mr Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign, which depends heavily on winning California's 54 electoral college votes.

But as Mr Huffington's ratings have grown so, too, have reports portraying him as an air-head, a foppish oil heir who is entirely controlled by his wife. 'How has this pair - an empty suit and a crackpot - risen so far?' asked New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Criticism of Ms Stassinopoulos centres on suspicions that she has her eye on the White House, and is using her husband's riches to try to buy the First Lady's job. Her social aspirations have been the stuff of gossip columns for years - ever since she left Cambridge University and launched herself into a writing career, a relationship with Bernard Levin and a regular spot on the BBC's Any Questions.

After exhausting the London social scene, she moved to New York in 1981, where she set about acquiring powerful friends (oil heiress Ann Getty, publisher Mort Zuckerman, Werner Erhard, advocate of the now-defunct 'est'). She is, her detractors are fond of remarking, 'the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus'.

But interest has also begun to focus on her ideology, and especially her role as a minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), a New Age Californian church. Although rumblings of her involvement persist, Ms Stassiinopoulos insists that she left the church eight years ago. 'I'm a Greek Orthodox,' she told the Independent. 'The Bishop has written a statement which says I am in good standing and that everything I have written in my books is theologically correct.'

But this week suspicions that she is her husband's puppeteer arose again when the Los Angeles Times reported that eight Huffington campaign staff had quit because they felt she was exerting too much control. Untrue, she said. The officials were disgruntled employees fired by Ed Rollins (one of a high- powered team of top US strategists paid for by the Huffington millions). Her role was merely that of 'a campaigning wife'.

This did not, however, appear to be borne out by events. The shy and gangly Michael Huffington, 47, does not talk much to the media. But when he agreed to a brief question-and-answer session in a hallway, his wife stood by him, staring hard at reporters who sought to probe his politics in any depth.

To his advantage (given the widespread disaffection with professional politicians), Mr Huffington has almost no track record. He entered Congress only in 1992, after spending dollars 5.2m of his fortune unseating a Republican old- stager in Santa Barbara, California, much to the disgust of some local party members.

His few political utterances have revealed that he is moderate - pro-choice, pro-homosexuals in the military - on some fronts, but extremely right-wing on others. And once off-script he is decidedly shaky. There was an embarrassing moment when he was asked if he thought welfare was ever justified. 'I think welfare is warranted when people actually can't work,' he replied. 'Either they are non-compus mentis because their brain has a problem, or they have lost their physical ability to work. No arms. No legs.'

So can this man produce one of the biggest upsets of the 1994 mid-term elections? At present, the race is too close to call. Mr Huffington has the advantage of exploiting popular disenchantment with 'special interest' money, just as Ross Perot did two years ago.

(Photograph omitted)