Washington — Presidential hopeful Bruce Babbitt finds himself in the role of the Missouri farmer who had an extremely stubborn mule. As the parable goes, one day the farmer was spotted by a stranger whacking the mule's hindquarters with a big 2-by-4.
``Why do you hit that mule so hard?'' the stranger demanded.
``Oh, I love this mule,'' the farmer replied. ``I'm just trying to get his attention.''
Mr. Babbitt, who stepped down as Arizona governor in January, trails far behind former Sen. Gary Hart in the polls. Most voters don't even recognize his name. So he needs to get Democrats' attention, even if he has to smack them a few times - hard. For example, Babbitt:
Wants to impose federal income taxes on social security benefits for those making more than $35,000.
Favors making the federal government responsible for all welfare payments.
Urges corporate executives to slash their own salaries if the wages of American workers are cut.
Charges that the Reagan administration would like to see national guardsmen training in Central America killed so the United States would have a pretext to invade Nicaragua.
Babbitt has also emerged with provocative positions on medicare (he would tax some benefits), nuclear arms (he thinks President Reagan missed a major opportunity at the Iceland talks), and abortion (he favors freedom of choice, even though he is a Roman Catholic).
Yesterday, Babbitt flew into New Hampshire (the first primary state), Iowa (the first caucus state), and Georgia (heart of the Mega-Tuesday Southern primary) to launch his campaign officially. But he has really been running for months. He appears to be making progress. Campaign offices have been opened in Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C.
Babbitt raised nearly $1 million in contributions in just the first two months of 1987. That's about one-third of what his staff projects will be needed to get him through the New Hampshire primary.
Does he really have a chance? The 1988 presidential campaign remains wide open, and there could be big surprises.
Ever since another ex-governor (Jimmy Carter) from a moderate-size state (Georgia) shocked the nation by grabbing the Democratic nomination, experts have made their predictions with greater care.
Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center in Washington, says he rates all the ``B candidates'' equally - Babbitt, Biden, Bumpers, and Bradley. It's expected that Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware and Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas will run. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey says he won't, but some experts are still not convinced.
The ``four B's,'' along with US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who recently announced his White House campaign, start on level ground, all far, far from Mr. Hart.
Yet one of these five, or perhaps Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, appears almost certain to emerge as the principal alternative to Hart.
In that way, 1988 could be a repeat of 1984, when Hart emerged suddenly out of Iowa as the principal challenger to Walter Mondale.
At this stage, Mr. Scammon says, it is impossible to predict which of the challengers - the four B's, Gephardt, or Nunn - will move up to No. 2. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is also expected to run; but Scammon says he will have a difficult time expanding beyond his base of votes among black Americans.
Among Democrats in Iowa, Babbitt currently draws only 2 percent support, according to a poll last month by the Des Moines Register. Front-runner Hart had 59 percent.
Dr. Elaine Kamarck, deputy campaign manager for Babbitt, says the current strategy is to get him better known. That can be done by ``being the most aggressive and creative on the issues. He probably is the only candidate on the Democratic side who has the ability and guts to take on the unorthodox approaches to solve difficult problems.''
One of Babbitt's favorite targets is the Gramm-Rudman, across-the-board, budget-cutting law. He calls it indicative of ``everything that's rotten in Washington.''
The across-the-board approach has no priorities, he charges. We see ``federal buildings with the same priority as sick children.... Military bands with the same priority as the homeless. And a congressman's junk mail with the same priority as your children's education.''
Babbitt plans to keep swinging those verbal 2-by-4s all year long.