With Gov. Babbitt retiring, Democrats face tough test in Republican Arizona

Fast-growing Arizona has come of age, economically and politically, 74 years after it became a state. Change has been rapid in recent decades. Phoenix, the state capital, has become the ninth-largest city in the United States within the last 10 years, with a population of some 825,000. Statewide the population grew from 1.8 million in 1970 to 2.7 million in 1980, the date of the last census.

This year, change is the political keynote. As of next January, Arizona will have a new governor, a new US senator, and new leadership in the state House and Senate.

At the base of the state's political change is the fact that nearly two-thirds of its eligibile voters today are out-of-staters who moved to Arizona within the last 20 years.

With the new crop of Arizona voters have come ideas brought from other places.

Nowhere is the wind of change more apparent than in the campaign for governor. For nearly eight years, Democrat Bruce Babbitt has dominated state politics.

A middle-of-the-road Democrat, Mr. Babbitt has been perceived nationally as something of a political oddity in this mostly Republican state. But he is a fiscal conservative and has been able to work with the Republican-dominated Legislature by trading off one issue for another.

Even his political opponents give Babbitt credit for his political agility.

The governor could have run for a third term with good prospects for success, but he decided instead to take a run at the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. As a result, he has spent much of his last year in office traveling throughout the country to test his appeal.

He has not yet declared himself to be a candidate, however.

Babbitt has endorsed Phoenix attorney Tony Mason for the Democratic nomination for governor in the Sept. 9 primary. Mr. Mason's chief opposition comes from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Warner.

Republicans have centered their attention on House majority leader Burton Barr as the candidate most likely, in their view, to regain the governor's chair for the GOP. A 20-year veteran of the state House of Representatives, Mr. Barr is regarded as the most powerful member of the Legislature.

He lists air pollution control, water quality, and economic incentives as programs brought about, in large measure, by his support.

But Barr admits that Governor Babbitt has been helpful in that process of producing programs needed to meet the state's growth problems.

``Babbitt's good at what he does,'' says Barr. ``Over the years we have cooperated. He hasn't always given Republicans proper credit, but this year he did. We worked as partners.''

While many say the Arizona Democratic Party is only a shell of its former self, Mrs. Warner has relied heavily on party district organizations to help her in the primary. Her key campaign argument is that the public doesn't trust the Republican-controlled Legislature to act responsibly. And that has been the core of her campaign rhetoric.

In the few polls that have been taken so far, Warner is ahead.

Babbitt is unlikely to have much time to campaign for his party's nominee, since he will be busy with his own bid for president.

Interest in this year's Arizona election is heightened, not only because of the changes taking place in top offices, but also because of the demands being made by new residents. They want to know what the future holds for them in their adopted state.

Democrats will be anxious to show that they can keep the governor's office without Bruce Babbitt, in spite of expected GOP victories in both houses of the Legislature.

Republicans want to show they are what they claim to be -- Arizona's dominant political party.

But party labels become obscured when placed against the big issue of growth and its attendant problems -- jobs, living space, and environment.

Arizona is well past just being a tourist stop for the ``snowbirds,'' those who come to the state in the winter months.

It has a growing high-tech industry, several highly respected universities where important research is being conducted, and the fastest growing community of small businesses west of the Mississippi River.

One can still see the Indian reservations, the proliferation of lush golf courses, and vast areas of open land. But the cities are getting larger and their suburbs are reaching each other.

The next governor will have his hands full managing this burgeoning Western state.

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