CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Tensions Rise on Campaign Trail : Illegal immigrant hiring remains an issue for Huffington, but a new statewide poll shows him ahead. Some Orange County Republican officials endorse Feinstein.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Republican Senate candidate Mike Huffington campaigned Wednesday in Los Angeles and fueled a stubborn controversy over illegal immigration by charging rival Sen. Dianne Feinstein with forgery, bribery and the same federal crime he has admitted--hiring an illegal immigrant as domestic help.

Feinstein campaigned Wednesday in traditionally Republican areas of Orange County and Riverside, where she was endorsed by several city and county leaders, including Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder and businesswoman Kathryn Thompson, both Republicans who broke party ranks. Asked about Huffington's allegations, the senator fired back that her opponent was committing "distortions, outright lies, about me, my family, my record."

Tension in the Senate race rose another notch Wednesday with news of the first public poll to show Huffington ahead of Feinstein. KCBS-TV in Los Angeles reported Wednesday night that a statewide survey found the Republican nominee supported by 42% of the state's voters compared to 40% for Feinstein.

The new poll contrasted with two previous surveys this week that showed Feinstein leading by as much as 10 points.

Huffington tried Wednesday to distance his campaign from the issue that has shadowed him for nearly a week--the admission that he employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny for more than four years. In Los Angeles, he gave a luncheon speech to about 130 members of the Town Hall about the priorities he would have as a U.S. senator.

But throughout the day, the candidate was forced to defend his statements on the controversy and his positions on illegal immigration, particularly his support for Proposition 187, the ballot measure that would cut most health and education benefits to illegal immigrants. As part of his defense, the candidate lashed out at Feinstein and the "liberal media" that he said is helping her campaign.

Among the day's developments:

* In a morning interview on Los Angeles television station KTLA, Huffington seemed to say that employers could hire illegal immigrants as long as they paid for costs that might otherwise be borne by taxpayers.

"Now if people are going to employ them, they should pay for them with private funds," the candidate said. "And if they're not, then the people will have to go back to their own countries."

Asked specifically if he was suggesting that illegal immigrants should be employed, Huffington said he supported a guest worker program for jobs that cannot be filled by American citizens. But later at a news conference, Huffington said he did not believe it was appropriate for illegal immigrants to be employed in the United States.

* Huffington, asked in the television interview when he would provide proof of his accusation that Feinstein has employed illegal immigrants at her home, said, "Thursday or Friday."

But later at a news conference, the candidate said his announcement may not be until Sunday. He also said the announcement might not be proof about illegal immigrants at Feinstein's home. "You'll have to wait," he told reporters.

Feinstein rejected the accusation again Wednesday, saying she has never employed an illegal immigrant. The senator said she has had one housekeeper for more than 10 years who was born in Milwaukee.

"What can I do? . . . I have said it is false," Feinstein told reporters. "You know this is someone who doesn't tell the truth. I mean, we have been through it over and over and over again. . . . And now, when his hand is caught in the cookie jar, he says, 'Oh well, she has done it too.' And yet he has not submitted one iota of proof."

* Huffington said that Feinstein was guilty of "forgery" in connection with her accusation last month that his home included a racially restrictive clause prohibiting its sale to nonwhite owners. The candidate said in the television interview that he did not have such a clause on his property and that Feinstein did.

But Huffington acknowledged at the time that at least one of the two properties he owned in Houston included the clause. Asked about the contention of forgery, Huffington's campaign produced a Feinstein press handout in which the Republican candidate's name was placed adjacent to the racially discriminatory language. Huffington's campaign contended that the document was a forgery because it indicated that the candidate's signature was on the same page as the controversial language.

* Huffington also charged the senator with bribery, saying that a Santa Barbara newspaper reporter was acting as an agent for her campaign last week when he approached the illegal immigrant who worked as the Huffingtons' nanny.

Huffington's campaign has issued a two-page notarized statement from the former nanny's husband saying that the reporter offered them green cards and jobs if they talked about their experience in the Huffington household.

Both Feinstein and the newspaper reporter rejected the charge.

* Federal election records released Wednesday in Washington show that Feinstein loaned her campaign $812,000 during the last 10 days of October. This brings the total the California Democrat has contributed to her reelection effort to $2.35 million. Huffington has given his campaign $27.3 million.

Feinstein, according to the reports, collected $228,000 in $1,000 contributions from individuals and $82,750 from political action committees between Oct. 20 and 29. The recent contributions mean that Feinstein has raised at least $12.5 million so far.

In his speech Wednesday, Huffington sought to outline three priorities if he is elected to the U.S. Senate--economic reform, welfare reform and "breaking the grip of the special interests."

"Six days from now, I am asking the people of California for a mandate to get government out of their lives and off their backs; a mandate to dismantle the federal welfare state that is sapping our nation's resources and a mandate to take on the Establishment in Washington," he said. "If the people elect me, they won't get just another senator who will join the club, slice the pork and bring home the bacon--they'll be sending a bull into the congressional china shop."

On economic reform, Huffington said he would seek to repeal the tax increases passed in Clinton's 1993 economic package--which included a gas tax and other increases targeted at the wealthy. To limit the power of special interests, Huffington also proposed that candidates be offered free time on television for commercials.

Feinstein began her day talking about campaign reform as well. In an interview on ABC TV's "Good Morning America," she said, "I am running against someone who has unlimited money. And if any race shows need for campaign spending reform . . . this one does."

Challenging Huffington's self-proclaimed description of political outsider, Feinstein said the Republican congressman--a former Ronald Reagan Administration appointee--has spent more time in federal government than she has.

"What the race is really about is someone who has no record, who has actually been in Washington a year longer than I . . . and has done absolutely nothing but bought a House seat and turned around and is determined to buy a Senate seat," she said.

Other Orange County elected officials who endorsed Feinstein on Wednesday were Huntington Beach Mayor Linda Moulton Patterson, Stanton Mayor Sal Sapien, Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly and Irvine Police Chief Charles S. Brobeck. Feinstein also won endorsements from Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno, Laguna Beach Councilwoman Lida Lenney, Dana Point Councilwoman Karen Lloreda, Anaheim Councilman Irv Pickler and Stanton Councilman William C. Estrada.

Huffington has won endorsements from Orange County Reps. Robert K. Dornan, Ed Royce, Dana Rohrabacher, Christopher Cox, Ron Packard and Jay C. Kim. He also has support from Assembly members Ross Johnson, Doris Allen, Gil Ferguson, Curt Pringle, Bill Morrow and Mickey Conroy. State senators for Huffington include John R. Lewis and Rob Hurtt.

At a rally at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach on Wednesday, Wieder told about 80 Feinstein supporters that her own endorsement was "not courageous. It's the right thing to do."

In 1992, Wieder angered some Orange County Republicans when she endorsed Bill Clinton for President, which resulted in an unsuccessful recall attempt against her.

Outside Wednesday's rally, five Huffington supporters carried signs that said, "Wieder is wrong."

"It is time for Harriett to be honest with the voters about her political loyalties," said Jo Ellen Allen, vice chairwoman of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, "and sign on the dotted line where it says Democrat."

Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.

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