BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein stood in the living room of an elegant home here the other night and talked about money in terms that her elite audience understood.
"It's a million dollars a week to break through the television airwaves," said the Democratic candidate for the "short" Senate seat to fill the unexpired term of present Gov. Pete Wilson, the Republican who beat her for the governorship less than two years ago.
The comment led someone in the audience at the big-bucks fund-raiser to ask how she hoped to win her race against Sen. John Seymour, appointed by Wilson for the interim period, since she had said previously she had only a million dollars in her campaign till. The answer, Feinstein said, was more fund-raisers of the kind they were holding there, with those present giving more or recruiting friends to do so.
Another guest, who said he had "already given my check," assured her that she was going to win, but that didn't deter her and another booster from urging the assembled deep pockets to dig down, not only for Feinstein but the rest of the Democratic ticket.
The deep recession that has hit once "recession-proof" California has taken its toll on political giving too, as has the fact that so many elections are being held in this cycle. Seven new congressional seats, raising the total of House seats to 52, are up as well as the two Senate seats plus contests for new state legislative seats based on the 1990 census.
For this reason, candidates are not able to buy television ads yet, and the Senate candidates aren't likely to do so until the last two or three weeks of the campaign.
But Feinstein and the Democratic candidate for the six-year term of retiring Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, Rep. Barbara Boxer, may nevertheless be suffering from an embarrassment of riches -- not in dollars contributed, but in their very high ratings in the polls. The latest Los Angeles Times poll has Feinstein leading Seymour by 16 percentage points and Boxer ahead of the Republican nominee, Bruce Herschensohn, by 19, which might also discourage giving.
Such numbers inevitably breed complacency among some Democrats, although Feinstein insisted to her well-heeled listeners that she was facing a tough race. "That 16 percent can evaporate in a moment," she insisted -- a view that is not widely held here even among Republican operatives.
Questions that were raised before and after the June primaries about Californians' willingness to elect two women to the Senate at the same time are seldom heard anymore. Both Boxer and Feinstein benefit from an 11 percent "gender gap" among women voters, and men don't say they're put off by two women running for two Senate seats.
Feinstein is much better known than Seymour, who has never run statewide before, and Boxer appears to benefit from an impression of Herschensohn, fostered by the Democrats, that he is extreme even by California conservative standards.
Herschensohn's campaign manager, former Nixon aide Ken Khachigian, says Boxer is trying to sell herself as an agent of change when she is a House incumbent, but that his candidate, a television commentator, is the real outsider.
It is in this light, Khachigian contends, that Herschensohn can survive the wave that appears poised to engulf his party's national standard-bearer, President Bush, because of California's deep recession. "I've never been a big coattail believer," he says. At the same time, though, he says, "we're not going to run away from George Bush." That will be a neat trick -- running as an outsider on a ticket headed by the ultimate insider, although Bush is trying the same outsider pitch in running against "Washington" and Congress.
Bill Carrick, Feinstein's campaign manager, says California Republicans are particularly hurt by the recession because "it has a white-collar edge to it" as it affects the real estate and banking businesses. "The go-go-go California economy is gone-gone-gone," he says, "and the people getting hurt are the base of the Republican Party."
Thus, earlier qualms about sending two women to the Senate at one time appear to be getting swamped by the concern over the economy.