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.''
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?''
Public life is not a Babbitt family tradition. His younger brother, Jim, who runs the family ranch holdings near Flagstaff, Ariz., says, ``My brother is very different from the rest of the immediate family. We're kind of quiet, kind of reserved by nature. We stick pretty much to ourselves.''
But his brother, says Jim Babbitt, was gone from Flagstaff ``the minute he finished high school.'' And while he says that Bruce Babbitt is ``not a natural-born politician, not a natural-born people person,'' he adds: ``He's learned how to do it. He can sense a weakness and work on it.''
BRUCE BABBITT'S first thoughts of public service came in the summer of 1962 in Bolivia, where he was doing research for a master's degree in geophysics. ``There I was studying geological formations in the face of starvation,'' he says. ``As the summer wore on, the rocks seemed less important than the people.'' It was there that he first decided that government must be part of the solutions to humanity's problems.
Armed with that thought, he left geology for law, graduating in 1965 from Harvard Law School. After summers of volunteer work in South America and two years working with President Johnson's War on Poverty in Texas, ``I began to see the link between social activism and progress,'' he says.
But it took a few years of private law practice in Arizona, during which time he represented the Navajo Indians, to persuade Babbitt to ``cross the bridge'' to public office.
The Navajos had been ``gerrymandered out of representation in the Legislature,'' says Babbitt. Working on a redistricting case, Babbitt came up against the state attorney general. ``I asked him why he was using public money to defend such an outrageous legislative act. But in the course of trying that case'' - which Babbitt won - ``I realized I could have that job, and in effect have my own public-interest law firm.''
Eckstein points to another case, concerning Indian mineral rights, that convinced him of his friend's ``imagination, scholarship, and incredible determination.'' Previous counsel had recommended that the Navajos accept a $3 million cash settlement. ``But Bruce went to Washington, turned up old survey maps ... with the result that the Navajos received more money, and land.''
Babbitt served as Arizona attorney general from 1975 to 1978, and he won high marks for prosecuting rampant land fraud and setting up the state's first grand jury system. He then succeeded to the governor's office, where he stayed, after his two elections, until the completion of his term a year ago.
As governor, Babbitt faced a prickly set of circumstances: He was a Democratic chief executive with a very conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature, in a state where the governor traditionally was little more than a ribbon-cutter.
He changed all that. ``He was extremely effective,'' says Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator who worked closely with Babbitt and is now a Phoenix political consultant. ``First, he studied what options he did have as a governor in this state; he used the veto extensively as a means of equalizing power,'' he says. ``He learned how to form coalitions, and use them.''
Babbitt came to dominate Arizona politics, but he didn't do so, according to Mr. Gutierrez, in the ``back-slapping, good-ol'-boys manner'' the state was accustomed to. He did so,'' he adds, ``by intellectually dominating the debate. He transcended partisanship.''
Babbitt was able to bring together business and environmental, urban and rural interests - something even critics agree no one else had been able to do - to hammer out a ground-water act that many consider his finest achievement.
``He had an ability to pull people together in a room and say, `Stay there until you come up with a solution,''' says Jane Hull, a Republican state representative from Phoenix. Like many others, Ms. Hull also praised Babbitt's skill in finding top-quality people to work under him.
``This was the first time a governor of Arizona brought together superbly competent individuals in state government,'' says Mary Ellen Simonson, who served a short stint as an administrative assistant to Babbitt on public-policy issues. ``Having chosen the best people he could find, he was comfortable to delegate.''
BABBITT draws some criticism for his many absences from the state as he stepped up his pursuit of the White House. He delivered on a campaign pledge to bring Arizona, the lone holdout state, into some form of medicaid program. But he was absent when the Arizona program, which works more like a private health plan than the traditional federal medicaid program other states follow, fell into financial chaos.
``It took the Legislature screaming, `Governor, you've got to come back and do something,' to get that mess straightened out,'' says Hull.
Even some who praise his ability as governor are uncertain he could translate that into similar success in Washington.
``Here he taught legislators and business leaders about the issues, and led them where he wanted to go,'' says Bill Jamieson, a Phoenix political consultant whom Babbitt hired to head up the state's social services department. ``But it's harder to do that at the national level,'' he adds. ``You have to do that with force of personality. Bruce Babbitt would never have the personal magnetism to go on television and convince people to convince their congressmen to support him.''
Ms. Simonson agrees that Babbitt may not have the personal appeal of Ronald Reagan, but she says he has ``charisma of competence. That's something I think people are ready for.''
Babbitt's chief problem with voters may be that his ideas remain too complex in an age when television and car radios reduce everything to bumper-sticker length. In an age of the 15-second publicity spot, Eckstein says, the Babbitt campaign only half kiddingly is considering the slogan ``He may not bring you to your feet, but he'll bring you to your senses.''
But according to Andy Hurwitz, who served as Babbitt's chief of staff for four years until 1984, voters will make a mistake if they don't give Babbitt's ideas a closer, longer look.
``I'd say his message is that government can solve problems, but it takes a sense of community, a sense of sacrifice, it takes the public and private sectors working together,'' says Mr. Hurwitz. But the gist of Babbitt's vision, he adds, may be this: ```It's a complicated world, and requires complex solutions.' Unfortunately, that's not the kind of message that has people jumping to their feet.''
Fourth in a series. Tomorrow: Robert Dole.
`The great triumph of my life'
WITHOUT hesitation, Bruce Babbitt calls his 18-year marriage to Harriet (Hattie) Babbitt ``the great triumph of my entire life.''
The two met in 1966 on a plane from Dallas to Austin, Texas. ``Everything else pales compared to my decision that day to sit next to that 18-year-old girl,'' he says.
Mrs. Babbitt is now a successful lawyer in Phoenix, having so far found time to continue working with some of her clients while campaigning vigorously for her husband.
She says she would not be a meddler in her husband's work in the White House, any more than she was in Arizona. ``I did not hang around on the ninth floor,'' she says, referring to the Arizona governor's office. But she adds that, given the closeness of her and her husband's relationship, she expects there would be a ``sharing of views.''
Babbitt the candidate says his wife would represent to the American people ``what a modern woman is all about.'' He says she ``blends the old and the new, mixing important traditional values of close family and the work ethic with ... the best of modern changes: The woman who is well educated and has her own sense of identity.''
The Babbitts have two sons, Christopher, 12, and T.J., 10. Paul Eckstein, a friend, recalls flying with Babbitt and Christopher from Phoenix to Flagstaff. ``He spent the whole flight talking with obvious affection to his son, which is not so unusual. What struck me was the maturity of the conversation, mostly about the geological formations passing below. You could see the sheer joy of imparting information, the display of concern and teaching.''
Babbitt's brother, Jim, suggests that his brother's interest in public service may stem in part from a boyhood experience. When Bruce was growing up in Los Angeles, an uncle, who was attorney for the family's business, died. That uncle had been active in Arizona politics.
Bruce's father moved the family to Flagstaff. ``He was only six years old,'' says Jim Babbitt, ``but I think that series of events, leaving a city for a different life, and because of someone in public service he'd heard a lot about, really had an impact on Bruce.''
Taking the federal deficit by the horns
FOR Bruce Babbitt, nothing is more important than cutting the federal budget deficit. That is the key, he says, to ``sound economic growth'' and a solid footing for tackling other pressing problems.
Mr. Babbitt says the budget deficit is being used to ``hack away at the social consensus that has been built up in this country over the past 50 years.'' He adds that once the deficit is tackled, ``We can move on to a little more visionary future.''
He calls for a combination of budget cuts and revenue increases.
Spending trims. Babbitt touts a ``universal needs test'' that would be applied to every program. Purpose: to gauge each program's true need against the goal of eliminating the deficit, and to curtail growth in entitlement programs that too often, he says, end up helping the wealthy who don't need them.
For example, he says farm subsidies should be limited to small farmers, and not apply to giant agribusinesses that now receive millions of tax dollars. Also, a needs test would ensure that the truly needy continue to get help from entitlements like social security and medicare. Whereas recent efforts under the Reagan administration have focused on increasing charges to recipients uniformly - rich and poor alike - Babbitt's program would spare low-income elderly while increasing the burden on the more well-to-do.
Taxes. Babbitt advocates a ``national consumption tax'' - a national sales or value-added tax - to help reduce the deficit. He says the 5 percent tax would raise $40 billion to $60 billion annually. Calling for a tax structure that encourages saving, Babbitt would eliminate the income-tax exemption on second homes.
Workers' rights. He espouses ``workplace democracy,'' whereby workers would share more equitably in the ups and downs of their industries and play a more integral role in their direction. ``Why should workers face cutbacks and salary drops, only to see their managers enjoy whopping bonuses when things improve?'' he asks. To rebuild American productivity, he adds, ``we must work to break down antagonisms between workers and managers.'' Profit-sharing and employee ownership should be encouraged.
Children. ``We must rescue our children from the downward curve on which they are sliding,'' he says. He advocates universal day care, calls for the federal government to lead the way in expanding preschool programs, and calls for $20 billion in new money for teacher pay and improved public schools.
Latin America. As a former governor of a US-Mexico border state, Babbitt has a special interest in Mexico and all of Latin America. He calls for closer relations with Mexico to help ease its economic crisis. He supports the Arias plan for settling conflict in Central America, and is unequivocally opposed to contra aid. He says Nicaragua is ``not the first domino of a Marxist expansion, but the last domino in the progress of democracy.''
Arms control. He supports negotiations to reduce nuclear arms, but says the US must be prepared to increase spending on conventional weapons. As president, he would pursue research in strategic defense to guard against ``technological surprise,'' but he opposes development, testing, or deployment.