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Arizona's feisty Republican governor unfazed by recall effort

After more than six months in office, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham is continuing to emerge as one of the most conservative and controversial state leaders in the country. The one-time Pontiac dealer, who captured the governorship in an unusual three-way contest last November, caused a row shortly after taking office by rescinding a state holiday honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The political pyrotechnics have hardly stopped since. Through a combination of independent, dukes-up political style and conservative substance, Republican Mecham has managed at one time or another to anger minorities, working women, the media, educators, and leaders of the Legislature, including some in his own party.

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Now he faces a determined effort by a citizens' group to recall him from office.

Critics fault the governor for ``insensitive'' leadership and contend he is a political anachronism - too conservative even for conservative Arizonans. But supporters argue that the controversies surrounding the governor have little to do with issues and instead reflect his say-what's-on-your-mind approach to governing and to unfair treatment by the press.

``It is an amazing situation,'' says Earl de Berge, a Phoenix-based pollster. ``Most governors who had gotten into this kind of controversy would have tried to cool it by now. He just seems to thrive on it.''

How deep the discontent runs may be gauged by the recall campaign, which officially began last week. Although the governor's job-approval rating has been consistently running below 50 percent, political pros don't give the effort much chance of success. For one thing, organizers of the recall attempt, who have four months to collect the 217,000 signatures necessary to force an election, are launching their drive in the heat of the summer, when many Arizonans are vacationing out of state.

Political pundits also point out that while many voters may disagree with some of the governor's policies or pronouncements, that does not mean they will support a recall. Moreover, the grass-roots drive doesn't have the backing of either major political party.

Gov. Mecham (pronounced ``MEEK-um'') remains largely unfazed by the controversy surrounding his tenure, including the recall effort. Although no specific strategy is planned to counteract it, the governor has indicated he will rebut the charges - poor environmental record, ``insensitive'' statements about minorities, lack of support for education, among others - in a series of speeches.

His aides dismiss the recall campaign as the work of a ``fringe element,'' mainly dissident Democrats. The campaign has been spearheaded by Ed Buck, a wealthy young Republican businessman who is a self-acknowledged homosexual.

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``There is a very small, loud-mouthed, left-wing fringe in this state like there is anywhere else,'' says Ron Bellus, the governor's press secretary.

That the governor does remain unfazed is perhaps a testament to his unsual political style and grounding. A devout Mormon, he is from the strongly conservative ``Constitutionalist'' arm of the Republican Party, which believes the Constitution is a revelation from God.

He was elected last November, in his fifth bid for the office, with help from the Democrats. In addition to the party's official nominee, Carolyn Warner, a second well-known Democrat, Bill Schulz, ran as an independent. They split much of the Democratic vote.

Mecham was in office barely two weeks when the flap over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday broke out. It led to some groups scrapping plans for conventions in Arizona. The governor said he had no choice but to rescind the order recognizing the holiday because the state's attorney general had issued an opinion saying it was not legally authorized.

Since then, several impolitic remarks by Mecham have caused stirs. One such statement was that the increase in the number of women taking jobs was a reason for the breakdown of the family.

He has also come under fire for several of his political appointments and, most recently, for his alleged meddling in the selection of a lobbyist to plump for a major national science project and for giving a speech at a John Birch Society convention in Seattle.

``He needs to go to a public relations course given by Oliver North,'' says Democrat Alan Stephens, minority leader in the Arizona Senate.

Yet others believe Mecham's controversial statements and stands have been blown out of proportion and that many of his goals and programs - reducing the size of government, cutting government waste, cracking down on drugs and pornography - jibe with the thinking of Arizona voters.

``I think about 70 percent of his line falls down the line of most Arizonans,'' says Republican Bob Usdane, the majority leader in the Senate. ``It's the 30 percent that gets all the attention.''

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