It's been called ''an island of liberalism in a sea of conservatism.''
To a certain extent, that's been an apt portrayal of Tucson. This city has been Arizona's political maverick - a stubbornly Democratic holdout in a state that is not only home to Senator Barry Goldwater, but is also the only state in the country to have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1948.
''At one time,'' muses an aide to Rep. Morris K. Udall, Tucson's Democratic congressman for the past 20 years, ''I think Republicans were unknown in Tucson. They could have caucused in a bathtub somewhere.''
Like the rest of Arizona, however, Tucson is changing. By tradition a conservative Democratic state, Arizona began its crossover to the GOP in the late 1940s as prosperous, conservative Midwesterners moved here in search of warmer climes. Today Arizona's voters show signs of shifting again -- from partisan politics to issue politics.
''Arizona today is increasingly becoming a young, professional, white-collar, service-oriented state,'' says Earl deBerge, director of the Rocky Mountain Poll. ''There's a lot of flexibility, a lack of firmness among voters.
''It is, in short, up for grabs,'' he continues, citing as proof the fact that Senator Goldwater, the Republican patriarch, came within one-half of 1 percent of losing his seat to a conservative Democrat in 1980. ''Tucson has been a little more traditional in voting along party lines. It's been slower to change, but that may be accelerating.''
The roots of Tucson's Democratic politics are found in the fact that the city is in a largely rural area, which historically translates as Democratic votes in Arizona; that it is a college town; and that 24 percent of its people are Hispanic, traditionally Democratic and wielding a small but growing influence in local politics.
But gradually that demographic portrait is being shaded with conservatism. Tucson's growth in high-tech industries has brought in new outsiders, many of them Republicans, who now make up 38 percent of registered voters, up from 35 percent four years ago. The percentage of independent voters has risen also, from 10 percent to 12 percent.
This mix of voters -- with Democrats still accounting for 50 percent of the total -- makes for often interesting politics. Tucson is still the state's breeding ground for issues like the nuclear freeze. On the other hand, you don't have to look hard to find a conservative streak. The issue of booming growth vs. slow growth -- a salient topic in a city where water supplies are limited -- hasn't surfaced in a big way since the mid-1970s, when some local Democrats were labeled ''anti-growth'' and eventually voted out of office.
In the same 1980 election that brought Representative Udall the largest number of Republican votes he has ever received, Tucson and surrounding Pima County voters rallied around Senator Goldwater and Ronald Reagan -- giving the latter a 50-34 percent margin over Jimmy Carter.