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Bruce Babbitt

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 1988

THE same day in 1965 that Bruce Babbitt took the Arizona bar examination, he insisted on visiting San Xavier, one of the Arizona desert's Spanish missions. ``After the bar exam most people want to have a big blowout,'' says Paul Eckstein, a Phoenix lawyer and a Babbitt friend since law school days. ``But what does Bruce Babbitt want to do? He wants to drive 20 miles south of Tucson in the June sun to inspect an old mission. I was not too happy about it at the time, but I have to admit I ended up learning a lot that day. That's quintessential Bruce Babbitt.''

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Mr. Babbitt, who if not for an eye-opening experience in Bolivia might have become a geologist, has served as the attorney general and governor of Arizona, and now he wants to be president. He is an intellectual who has been called, usually in newspaper columns, the only Democratic candidate with ideas and answers.

All sides in Arizona agree that Babbitt adeptly employed his skills, as one Republican legislator says, to ``drag us kicking and screaming into the 20th century.'' Now Babbitt would like to convince the entire American public on his ideas.

Babbitt has showed political boldness, even courage, in shaping his positions, particularly on the federal budget deficit. To reduce government spending, he proposes a ``universal needs test'' to reduce such benefits as social security and medicare to affluent recipients. On the revenue side, he espouses a national sales or value-added tax.

But Babbitt, who first succeeded to the Arizona governor's office in 1979 to complete his predecessor's interrupted term, is not an instinctive politician - and some observers wonder if he has the political skills to carry out such an ambitious and controversial agenda.

Babbitt is a Democrat, but many of his ideas offend traditional Democratic constituents - especially those who often dominate the primaries. He fares poorly on television - he would rather talk one on one, and then about books and ideas - and he is not a glad-hander.

Here is a man who can get on an elevator and explain for 20-plus floors the fine workings of the alternative medicaid program he helped bring to Arizona, while remaining oblivious to the office workers - whom most politicians would at least acknowledge as potential votes - that get on and off at different floors.

And here is a man who doesn't think to play up his ``local angle'' - the fact that his wife is from the Rio Grande Valley, and that he himself worked there under the VISTA program in the '60s - during a December debate outside McAllen, Texas. ``That really stood out to me,'' says Juan Hinojosa, a Texas state representative from McAllen, and a Babbitt supporter. ``He didn't do the politically expedient thing to try to gain an advantage through geography. He was succinct on the issues.''

Babbitt never learned to be a compleat politician because, despite two elections to the governorship after his initial succession, it never became necessary. ``In Arizona I never learned to campaign, never learned how to ask for money, simply because I didn't have to,'' says Babbitt. But he is, as Mr. Eckstein says, ``an incredibly quick study,'' and a willing learner.

When critics panned his performance in a nationally televised debate last summer, he hired some consultants and went to work to improve his delivery. When he read a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal espousing a deficit-reduction plan that was signed by dozens of top executives from the nation's largest companies, a light came on.

``I decided to sit down and spend some time calling up these guys to ask for campaign contributions. It actually went pretty well,'' Babbitt says. ``One of them said, `I can't, I'm a Republican,' but I told him that didn't matter. The question was, did he want someone out there who was focusing some hard attention on reducing the deficit?''