CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Feinstein, Huffington to Debate on 'Larry King' : The candidates agree to appear on hourlong Cable News Network program. The announcement breaks a long stalemate in negotiations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Proving that California's U.S. Senate race is one of the nation's hottest political contests, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Mike Huffington will have a national audience for their first debate after both campaigns accepted an offer Wednesday to appear on the "Larry King Live" program.

The meeting is expected to take place next Thursday evening in the program's Washington studios. Officials from the program said, however, they have not confirmed the exact time. Still, both campaigns were anxiously preparing for the meeting.

"I think this is an opportunity to take this race . . . beyond the paid advertising," said Feinstein adviser Bill Carrick. "All of this stuff in the context of his ads has been simplistic little marketing things. This will require ideas."

Huffington spokesman Mark Thiessen responded: "When the voters get to ask Dianne Feinstein questions, it's a victory. We want the debates to be as freewheeling and as open and involving the people who are going to be making the decision as possible."

Both campaigns said they remain interested in additional debates after King's program. But the announcement broke a stalemate in negotiations that had shown little progress for several weeks. As a result, the two campaigns appeared a bit surprised that the agreement was reached barely a day after the offer was made by King's program.

"She accepted the moment she heard about it," Feinstein spokesman Bill Chandler said.

The one-hour program appeared to be just what the two sides were looking for. The campaigns said King has a reputation for fairness as a moderator. Huffington officials also said the call-in questions from viewers satisfied their requirement that the candidates be subject to public inquiry.

"To us, this is one of the most prominent national races," said Wendy Walker Whitworth, senior executive producer of "Larry King Live." "Both candidates are extremely high-profile and the issues are controversial--like crime, immigration and education. And they're not only of interest to Los Angeles, but the entire country."

Even though the program is based in Washington and broadcast nationwide, campaign officials said they expected the California audience would be bigger than it would have been under the other debate hosts being considered.

The program is broadcast around the world on Cable News Network. In California, it begins at 6 p.m. It is also simulcast on some radio stations.

King's program has already hosted a Senate debate this year among four Virginia candidates including Republican Oliver North and Democrat Sen. Chuck Robb.

The California race has gained increasing national attention recently as the battle over whether Democrats will retain control of the Senate has heated up. Republican candidates throughout the country have shown unexpected strength in opinion polls recently, placing more pressure on all of the Democratic campaigns.

California is still considered a likely Democratic victory on most Washington political score cards. But recent polls have found Feinstein and Huffington are in a close, if not a dead even, race.

The debate negotiations between Feinstein and Huffington appeared to be stalled after the campaigns issued sharply different proposals. And they declined to talk with each other.

Feinstein has agreed to three late October debates--one on radio in San Francisco, one on television in Los Angeles and another in San Diego. Both campaigns said those proposals remain under consideration.

Huffington's campaign has sought a less traditional format. Earlier this month, the GOP nominee offered to debate Feinstein every week for the last 10 weeks of the race in a different California location. Thiessen said the campaign hoped to have a town meeting style debate similar to one that the presidential candidates held in 1992.

Political Scorecard

40 days to go before Californians go to the polls

THE GOVERNOR'S RACE

* What Happened Wednesday: Gov. Pete Wilson continued acting on bills sent to him by the Legislature before its Aug. 31 adjournment. The Brown campaign began airing a television ad accusing Wilson of mismanaging state government. The Peace Officers Research Assn. of California also announced sponsorship of an ad supporting Brown because, among other things, "Kathleen Brown will enforce the death penalty." Airing of the ad has not been scheduled yet.

* What's Ahead: Wilson again will be signing and vetoing bills in his Sacramento office. Brown is scheduled to address a voter registration rally at San Jose State University.

THE SENATE RACE

* What Happened Wednesday: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Huffington were in Washington. Feinstein battled for passage of her Desert Protection Act. Huffington's wife, Arianna, was host of a $35-per-plate fund-raiser for women supporters of the campaign in Los Angeles that drew about 1,300 people.

* What's Ahead: Both candidates will remain in Washington today.

NOTABLE QUOTE

"People or flies. People or fairy shrimp. People or rats. These are not hard choices. . . . I say it's time we focus less on saving endangered species and more on saving endangered jobs."

--Mike Huffington

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