Babbitt, the Former Governor Takes His Long ShotLARRY LOPEZ , Associated Press
Feb. 2, 1988 12:26 AM ET
PHOENIX, ARIZ. PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) _ Bruce Babbitt is taking an unconventional approach in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, bicycling across Iowa and mountain climbing in New Hampshire with the philosophy that above all, ''politics should be fun.''
The former Arizona governor was back in the pack of Democratic hopefuls when he announced his candidacy last year.
But Babbitt quickly stood out from the other contenders, at least a bit, for his unusual outdoors approach to campaigning.
He bicycled across Iowa in an outing that is sponsored every year by the Des Moines Register and has turned into one of the state's major events.
He climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire, went fishing with party fund- raisers, rafted on the Colorado River and even made Sports Illustrated with a rugged cross-country ski tour in northern Arizona, near where five Babbitt brothers established their mercantile empire late in the last century.
''It's a nice way to create a little interest,'' he said. ''I think people get tired of seeing me give speeches in hotels.''
Babbitt is unable to relax fully when he appears before large crowds, despite work with a speech coach and TelePrompTer lessons, which he tried and abandoned. But his intelligence and quick mind stand out when he talks with small groups, an advantage he hoped would help in the small, early primary and caucus states where much politicking is still small-scale.
Babbitt has focused his campaign on economic issues, taking his rivals to task for what he says has been less than honest talk about reducing the federal budget deficit without painful adjustments.
He has also talked of Arizona's record of economic growth, which critics in the business community say occurred over Babbitt's objections. On the other hand, critics on the left say his social legislation was too little.
Babbitt was born June 27, 1938, in Los Angeles but moved to Flagstaff at age 7 after his uncle, a state lawmaker, died and his father took over part of the family business.
State Sen. Tony Gabaldon, then an assistant football coach at Flagstaff High School, remembers Babbitt as a gangly team manager and former Boy Scout; Tip Robertson, now a city police captain, remembers him as the student he used to go up against in drag races.
At Notre Dame, Babbitt was student body president and graduated with honors with a degree in geophysics. After graduate work in England, he received a law degree from Harvard in 1965.
Babbitt won a race for state attorney general on his first try in 1974 and began transforming a sleepy, civil-law office into a criminal-law agency on the cutting edge of such timely issues as land fraud. When investigative reporter Don Bolles of The Arizona Republic was killed by a car-bomb in mid- 1976, Babbitt took over prosecution of the case, profiting politically from the publicity and from reports that he also had been targeted for assassination.
He ascended to the governorship in March 1978. Incumbent Raul Castro had stepped down in late 1977 to take an ambassadorship, and Secretary of State Wes Bolin, next in line to Castro, died a few months later. Babbitt later was elected twice on his own.
Babbitt says he started thinking about running for president in 1982, after seeing the limits of local power over issues such as education and economics.
He spent more and more time outside the state, serving on a presidential commission inquiring into the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island, joining the Trilateral Commission, writing op-ed pieces and filling the seat of his limousine with books to read at home every night.
Babbitt, who is fluent in Spanish, spent long hours on relations with Latin America and has opposed aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua but also has allowed National Guard troops to train in Honduras.
But while he now describes himself as ''a hands-on guy that doesn't duck decisions,'' he drew criticism for being slow to react to growing crises at home over prison crowding, transportation and health care.
He also hurt himself with organized labor, a key element in Democratic primaries, by calling out the National Guard during a copper strike. The issue was particularly sensitive because of the guard's history in Arizona as a strike-breaking force, and while Babbitt used his veto power frequently before and since then to protect labor from a Republican-contro lled Legislature, some ill-feeling remains.
Babbitt defends his decision, saying he believes lives would have been jeopardized if he had not acted, and he says the rifts have healed.
Babbitt also has challenged other Democratic articles of faith: he favors a means test for such programs as Social Security and is trying to carve out a new position on trade deficits, one that would require a massive shift in international rules.
''Farm subsidies shouldn't go to agribusinesses in Arizona and California; the mortgage deduction shouldn't be available for second homes and you should subject government benefits (such as Social Security) to taxation above some threshhold - say $35,000 a year,'' he has said.
''The other specific part of the message is this issue of children as a way of refocusing and integrating some of the concerns about domestic programs,'' he continues. ''Government is not the enemy. It is us, and it can and should be used to set some goals and make some progress.''
But legal aid lawyer Bill Morris says that Babbitt's social programs in Arizona still lag far behind the norm, and lawmakers say Babbitt did not begin to appoint many women and minorities until he started running in earnest.
''After he started running for president, he seemed to have a program on everything,'' says Mel Morris, executive director of a business-backed tax research group.
When Babbitt announced in early 1985 that he would not seek a third full term as governor, he said he wanted to spend more time with his children, Christopher and T.J. His wife, Hattie, an attorney, even recalled an instance in which one of the boys went hunting for an elf in the garden in hopes the elf would grant a wish and keep his daddy home more.
But even though Babbitt has been out of state a great deal since then, he says his children, now 11 and 9, have ''a ho-hum attitude'' about his presidential bid.