Oak Creek Canyon, Ariz. — BRUCE BABBITT stooped at the edge of Oak Creek, picked a clump of small green plants growing in shallow water, and popped them into his mouth. ``Yep, just what I thought,'' he said, chewing. ``Watercress.''
The former governor of Arizona then moved ahead downstream, hopping from rock to rock, pushing through undergrowth, wading in shallow parts of the creek.
This is Bruce Babbitt in his element - out-of-doors in the magnificent West. On both sides, giant red canyon walls reached up a thousand feet. Crystal streams, brimming with rainbow trout, washed through the canyon floor. Along the watercourses, old apple trees, planted by early settlers, were red with fruit.
Mr. Babbitt, a Democratic candidate for president, frequently returns here to his native country, where he draws strength and inspiration for the 1988 campaign.
``I was really middle-aged before I began to realize that you can go home again, and my roots really are in this country in northern Arizona,'' Babbitt says. ``I come back often, and I find that my appreciation for the out-of-doors, rowing and climbing and that sort of thing, has deepened a great deal with the years.''
Babbitt, a trained geologist as well as a Harvard-educated lawyer, brings a special element - a Western perspective - to the 1988 race.
Like other contenders, Babbitt has strong views on the arms race with the Soviets and the economic race with Japan. But he also has a particularly deep commitment to three other areas: the environment, Latin American policy, and children's issues.
Former Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia says Babbitt challenges voters to ``think about tough questions.'' Babbitt ``doesn't give you the luxury of ducking what's really involved,'' Mr. Robb says.
For example, Babbitt would put more taxes on social security benefits. He would use those new revenues to strengthen medicare and add catastrophic-illness coverage.
``The politics of truth-telling and honesty require that we at least have the candor to discuss these issues,'' says Babbitt. ``There's a kind of timidity among politicians, a refusal to `wrastle' with these issues because of a perception that it's off limits. That's no way to run a society. That's no way to create a future.''
Often called an intellectual, Babbitt brings a single-minded determination to issues he deems crucial.
In 1985, as governor, he devoted his entire state-of-the-state address to children's issues. He says:
``One American child in 4 lives in poverty. One in 4! That is unacceptable. We have children who lack for medicine, children who go unsupervised while their parents are at work, children who pass from grade to grade without ever learning to read. We must have an affirmative program to bring our children into the 21st century.''
Babbitt considers America's policies south of the Rio Grande to be a disaster. Arizona state Sen. Alfredo Gutierrez, a supporter, says Babbitt would put Latin American policy, particularly relations with Mexico, at the top of his White House agenda.
The United States has ``a marriage [with Mexico] with no possibility of divorce,'' says Babbitt. ``The [Reagan] administration is obsessed with Nicaragua. There are 3 million people in Nicaragua, 83 million people in Mexico, and it is right on our border.''
Babbitt's environmental policies are ``more liberal than most Arizonans','' says state Sen. Robert Usdane, the Republican majority leader and a Babbitt critic. Yet Senator Usdane concedes that Babbitt is no radical - no ``tree hugger,'' in his words - on environmental policy.
Both Republicans and Democrats say Babbitt was an extremely effective politician during his nine years as governor.
After succeeding to the office after his predecessor's death in 1978, Babbitt - who had been the state attorney general - was returned by the voters later that year and again four years later. Even though Arizona is overwhelmingly Republican, Babbitt was reelected in 1982 with 63 percent of the vote.
Yet Babbitt, despite his popularity, has his critics. Most of them are Republicans.
Early in his administration, he offered the hand of friendship to Republicans. It was a logical move. The GOP controls both branches of the Legislature.
For a while, relations were warm. Later, however, Babbitt's popularity ``went to his head,'' says a GOP official. A number of Republicans charge that in his final years as governor, Babbitt ``hogged the limelight'' and had ``an inflated opinion of himself.''
Critics were particularly upset when Babbitt unilaterally declared a state holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Legislature had rejected the idea. The state attorney general had ruled that it would be illegal for the governor to declare the holiday.
Babbitt did it anyway - announcing the holiday at a black church. Critics saw the move as ``self-aggrandizement.''
One frequently heard criticism is that Babbitt was out of Arizona too often as governor because of his national political ambitions. In 1984, for example, he made 100 trips outside the state.
Republican national committeeman Jack London calls Babbitt a ``good politician.'' But he says Babbitt is ``always playing to the next audience. How can you keep your mind on being governor when your calendar says you are to be president?''
Another GOP complaint may be the most telling, at least for Babbitt's presidential ambitions.
Curt Davis, executive director of the GOP in Arizona, calls Babbitt ``very intelligent,'' but ``one of the worst communicators I've ever seen.''
That's a question that has worried even Babbitt's fans and campaign associates. In recent weeks, Babbitt has worked hard with coaches to improve his delivery on television and during debates. One consultant says he is delighted with Babbitt's progress. But it remains a handicap for the former governor.
Babbitt's communications problem appears to involve both delivery and content. Governor Robb says he has told Babbitt repeatedly that he must stop seeming so cerebral. He needs to soften his intellectual image, Robb says.
Babbitt has taken such advice to heart. Last year, to meet the voters he pedaled a bicycle more than 400 miles in the Des Moines Register's annual cross-Iowa bike ride. He often emphasizes his qualities as an outdoorsman and individualist.
Here in the quiet woods of Oak Creek Canyon, such problems seem far away. Sitting on a rock near the rushing water, Babbitt spells out his vision for America. Even critics, such as Mr. London, say Babbitt is enjoyable and provocative when he talks about his ideas like this, one on one.
Babbitt's political outlook begins with what he terms a ``world view.'' Where is America at this moment? What challenges does it face? What must we do to prepare for the 21st century?
``We are on the threshold of some pretty extraordinary changes in this world,'' he says. ``American values are winning all over the world. Over the last 30 or 40 years, we have created a world of unparalleled opportunity.
``Japan is an American victory. The Chinese are telling us that Marxism is dead, that they are looking to the West. ... Marxism is on the wane.''
All this poses a paradox for Americans, Babbitt says. A new, more challenging economic order is emerging. America can either get ready for it and compete. Or it can retreat to the sidelines.
Competing means America must deal with its budget deficit, must deal with productivity, must deal with education, must deal with a tax system that fosters spending, not saving.
``Can you talk straight about these issues? Or is it absolutely required that a politician be evasive, not address the real issues, engage in what I would call a continuing conspiracy of silence?'' he asks.
Babbitt speaks bluntly about higher taxes - such as eliminating the deduction for mortgage interest on second homes and taxing more social security benefits. He wants urgent action to bring better health care to American children, the leaders of the future.
Babbitt says a ``fundamental change'' is taking place in US-Soviet relations. The Soviets have lost the battle for the future. Their system has been rejected by the world. As a result, the Soviet threat is waning.
Even so, Babbitt says there are moments when it may be necessary to force the Soviets to back down.
``That's what being president is all about,'' he says. ``There is a point where you cross the line, where you have to stand up. That's the kind of thing [President] Kennedy learned ... during the Cuban missile crisis. Inevitably, somewhere down the line, those probes will take place. And you have to respond to them.''
Babbitt's two favorite Presidents are Harry Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He admires Truman because of his skill in leading America into its new responsibilities as a world leader after World War II. Roosevelt brought Americans greater economic security and equality of opportunity.
Babbitt, a Roman Catholic, says religion has helped shape his world view.
``I grew up a very rigorous Catholic in a very Catholic family. I had a Catholic education, and am still a practicing Catholic.
``What I learned at Notre Dame was that there is a lot more to religion than just ritual observance. What I saw at Notre Dame was a broader background of Christian commitment in terms of community [and] social justice.'' That commitment to social justice led him to Selma, Ala., and participation in the civil rights movement in 1965 and later to work as a government lawyer involved in federal poverty programs in the Southwest.
But he draws a careful line between religious dogma and lawmaking, he says.
``It's not my job to pass laws requiring that you refrain from eating meat on Friday in Lent, or that you go to church once a week. ... There are still a few areas of contention, and the abortion area is one, where there still is not an ethical consensus among Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. People with strong ethical values sharply disagree. That, to me, is the description of areas where you really ought not to be pushing legislative prescriptions, precisely because of the lack of consensus.''
Does Babbitt have a chance in 1988? At the moment, he's near the bottom of the polls. Money is short. But he has a plan. He is pouring his energies into Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses. He now has over 4,000 volunteers there, more than any other candidate.
Babbitt hopes for an upset. He hasn't forgotten that another former governor, Jimmy Carter, came from nowhere in Iowa with a startling victory in 1976 that eventually put him into the White House.