LOS ANGELES -- There is always a lot of talk in politics about buying elections. But here in California, voters are involved this year in what amounts to a laboratory test of the proposition that money alone can win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The principal figure in this experiment is Rep. Michael Huffington, a 46-year-old freshman Republican congressman who is challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who appeared politically invulnerable just three or four months ago.
Mr. Huffington is a lifelong Texan who moved himself and his personal fortune into Santa Barbara in 1991 and promptly used $5.2 million of his own money -- an all-time record for any congressional candidate in any campaign -- to win a seat in the House of Representatives in 1992.
Now, his House seat barely warm, Mr. Huffington has turned his sights on Ms. Feinstein, with a campaign that will break all records for spending in American politics.
He has already spent more than $9 million, almost entirely his own money, to win the Republican nomination. And he is buying television time at a rate that is likely to mean he will spend at least $25 million, and perhaps as much as $30 million, of the treasure he and his father amassed in the oil and liquefied natural gas business in Texas.
That, in turn, will mean total outlays in the campaign -- including $12 million or $13 million to be spent by Ms. Feinstein -- exceeding $40 million.
All these figures are new highs. The most expensive Senate campaign on record was the 1984 contest in North Carolina between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. James Hunt Jr. -- a total of about $21 million.
The greatest amount spent by any single candidate was the $17 million raised and spent by Mr. Helms in his 1990 campaign against Democrat Harvey Gantt, but that figure included considerable spending for fund-raising. By contrast, there are no such offsetting costs when a candidate like Mr. Huffington can simply write a check.
The previous high in personal spending was the $10 million spent by a Democrat, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, in his 1984 campaign.
What makes the figures so striking -- and frightening, to more conventional politicians -- is that Mr. Huffington has such flimsy credentials on paper. Except for two years as a minor functionary in the Defense Department during the Reagan administration, the candidate has spent his life in business in Texas.
As a prominent Republican here put it privately: "This is just a money thing. It's not like there's a constituency for him."
Ms. Feinstein herself is a freshman -- not a long-standing political institution in California. But her years of activism as mayor of San Francisco and her candidacy for governor in 1990 gave her a record that California voters found highly appealing in 1992, when she was elected with a margin of 16 percent of the vote over her Republican opponent.
But Mr. Huffington's money and television-advertising campaign -- much of it devoted to depicting Ms. Feinstein as just another liberal Democrat -- have already eroded that base of support.
The most recent Field Poll shows her leading the Republican challenger by only 45 percent to 39 percent, just above the statistical margin of error. And her approval-to-disapproval numbers have declined from 55 percent-35 percent in April to 47 percent-43 percent this month.
In that same period, those who rate her performance as "poor" or "very poor" have risen from 16 percent to 30 percent -- a change that political insiders trace directly to the negative commercials. "All he's done is attack," said poll-taker Mervin Field, "and he's wounding her grievously."
Indeed, one private and unpublished poll made for the sponsors of a ballot initiative has found the race dead-even, although only half the voters profess to know anything about Mr. Huffington.
The lavish spending by the Huffington campaign has political strategists here goggle-eyed. A strategy of immediately rebutting any Feinstein commercials with new attack spots means, for example, that the Republican campaign has been willing to pay premium prices for spots in prime time that cannot be pre-empted, a cost that political campaigns usually are unwilling and unable to pay.
In a sense, California is the ideal state for a candidate whose personal assets are variously estimated at from $70 million to $150 million or more. Because the state is huge, media advertising -- particularly on television -- is the principal source of "information" for many voters. All that is enormously expensive -- as high as $1.4 million a week for 1,000 gross rating points, meaning enough so that the average viewer might see a particular spot 10 times.
Some knowledgeable veterans of California politics also believe that a Senate race offers an opportunity not available in a campaign for governor, because senators seem relatively remote.
"We're a quintessential media state, and they're 3,000 miles away," said a Republican consultant, Sal Russo, who is not involved in the Huffington campaign. "They never get to be well-known in the state, so I think they're always vulnerable. . . . In a governor's race, you've got to pass that gut test with the voters."
Mr. Huffington clearly has not done that yet. Indeed, he is viewed with skepticism by many leading Republicans here because he spent $5.2 million to defeat a veteran incumbent of his own party, Robert Lagomarsino, and then a Democrat, Gloria Ochoa, in 1992.
A leading Republican activist who requested anonymity put it this way: "Among the Republican establishment, they don't like him. They're upset because he knocked off a very popular congressman."
There is also some controversy about Mr. Huffington's wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos, who has written several books, including a recent one on spirituality. She is considered socially ambitious in Washington, where she has taken to serving as hostess for latter-day salons in which guests at dinner are assigned topics to discuss.
The conventional wisdom here is that Mr. Huffington eventually will fall short as voters pay more attention to his credentials than to those of Ms. Feinstein.
"I think Dianne's going to win," said a prominent Republican in Sacramento, "because the fact is he's an empty suit."
What is not clear is whether Mr. Huffington's qualifications matter. So far, his money has been enough by itself to make a competitive campaign out of what was supposed to be a cakewalk for Dianne Feinstein but has turned into a great political experiment.