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When a Politician Changes His Name, Who’s He Kidding? : Campaigning: Senate candidate Michael Huffington wants to be called Mike. Does that make him a regular Joe?

<i> Joe Scott, a retired political journalist, is a Los Angeles-based corporate and political consultant</i>

Since the advent of television, how candidates look and talk on the tube has preoccupied their handlers almost as much as the message they hope will resonate with voters. Image matters in the eye of the camera. But what about the subtle ploy associated with playing the name game?

In California, tinkering with one’s given name has rarely been invoked as an issue in a statewide campaign. The late Democratic icon Jesse Marvin Unruh unsuccessfully attempted to do it in his 1970 loss to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. U.S. Senate hopeful Michael Roy Huffington is now embarked on on a similar path in trying to unseat Democrat Dianne Feinstein. At risk for Huffington, as it was for Unruh, is how cynical voters will respond to such a sleight of name. Will such vanity be seen as a con job, or distinction without a difference?

Unruh took the lead in dropping the final “e” in his given name from all press releases. The once-powerful Assembly Speaker, who had acquired the unflattering moniker of “Big Daddy,” naively hoped that his boss-like image might be softened if he was referred to as “Jess” instead “Jesse.” The print media didn’t buy it. After his defeat, Unruh went back to using Jesse until his successful race for state treasurer in 1974, when he resurfaced as Jess. But since his death in 1987, the record books have recorded his given name.

Switch reels to Huffington, Santa Barbara’s multimillionaire freshman congressman. Son of a former Houston oilman, the transplanted Texan spent $3.4 million in a self-financed campaign to defeat long-time GOP incumbent Robert Lagomarsino in 1992. Now he’s all but certain to break the all-time U.S. Senate record by spending whatever it takes--possibly up to $20 million--by Nov. 8.

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Huffington served less than 10 months in office before announcing that he would run against Feinstein. “I’m trying to get through the system as fast as I can and then get out and let other people come in,” he said. Months earlier, a scenario had already been widely circulated in GOP circles about an eventual White House run.

Now his handlers are trying to downsize his “Daddy Warbucks” rich-kid image to that of regular-guy commoner. Campaign press releases and folksy new television commercials showing him minus coat and tie have recast Michael as just plain “Mike.”

The Huffington camp swears that campaign advisers were sitting around a table one day with the candidate and asked which name he preferred. “He said, ‘Frankly, I like Mike,’ recalled veteran GOP image-maker Ken Khachigian. “The reality is, he’s Mike. He grew up with it and everybody knows him as Mike.” Surprisingly, some media outlets (including The Times), have been sold on the spin.

Despite the effort to refashion him as an informal, voter-friendly pol, Huffington still signed his name “Michael” in a recent letter to Feinstein. And both Huffington’s wife, writer Arianna Stassinopolous, and his closest social friends still call him by his given name. All of which may leave the average voter, concerned about serious federal bread-and-butter issues, feeling surreal, if not somewhat nauseated.

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