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Mecham prepares to make his case before Arizona Senate. House vote to impeach another embarrassment for governor

Although he is not fully engulfed yet, the political quicksand continues to build around embattled Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham. Friday's impeachment vote by the Arizona House of Representatives leaves his immediate fate in the hands of the state Senate, where his chances of survival are better than they were in the lower chamber. That, in part, is because it will take a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority to convict and remove him from office.

Nevertheless, the Republican governor has to step down while the trial in the Senate is going on, which strips him of his powers and a prominent public-relations pulpit.

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The House's overwhelming 46-to-14 vote represents another political embarrassment for a chief executive also facing criminal charges and a May 17 recall election. It will increase pressure on him to resign voluntarily - but will also, no doubt, stiffen support among his shrinking but ardent band of loyalists.

``It is a pretty significant blow,'' says Bruce Mason, a political scientist at Arizona State University.

``I think it is very significant,'' concurs Earl de Berge, research director for the Phoenix-based Rocky Mountain Poll. ``It means you have a governor who went before a group dominated by his own party and couldn't convince them there weren't grounds to remove him from office.''

Mr. Mecham is the first governor to be impeached since Huey Long of Louisiana in 1929. Only 15 other governors have been impeached in US history. Six subsequently were removed from office. Four were acquitted. The remaining ones either resigned or otherwise left office before the impeachment proceedings ended.

Mecham has vowed to fight to retain his office. While the Senate tries him, Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, is to act as governor.

If there is one consolation for Mecham it is that he will now be able to concentrate full time on his defense. He will not, however, enjoy the visibility of the office, nor be able to veto or push measures in the legislature.

It is far from certain that the GOP-dominated Senate (19 Republicans, 11 Democrats) will decide to convict. In addition to needing 20 of the 30 senators to go along, the proceedings will be conducted like a trial.

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Though the final Senate rules have not been worked out, Mecham and his lawyer will be able to call witnesses and cross-examine those opposed to him.

``I think cross-examination will tear them to bits,'' Mecham told supporters over the weekend. Mecham has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and refused to resign. Twice before in Arizona history state officials have been impeached by the House and acquitted in the Senate.

``They are afraid of the issue,'' says one Senate source of the mood of the chamber. ``They would love not to have to take it up. But they will do what they have to do.''

Even if the one-time Pontiac car dealer survives the Senate, he still faces a Sisyphean struggle at the ballot box. A recent poll has him coming in a distant third in a race with Carolyn Warner, a Democrat who has already announced her intention of running, and former Arizona congressman John Rhodes, who appears poised to enter at the behest of some Republicans.

Mecham also faces a criminal trial set to begin next month on charges that he and his brother, Willard, tried to conceal a $350,000 campaign loan. This, coupled with allegations that he borrowed $60,000 in state funds for his automobile dealership and tried to thwart an investigation of a death threat, formed the heart of the House's impeachment proceedings, which included four days of testimony from the governor.

The House will take up today whether all three of the counts will be passed along to the Senate for trial. The impeachment bill of particulars is expected to break the allegations down to 15 or 20 specific charges.

The controversy surrounding Mecham, who won in a three-way race in 1986 after five previous tries, started shortly after he took office. Much of the tumult revolved around what critics consider insensitive references to blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and other groups, as well as some controversial appointments.

But his problems grew worse last month when he was indicted on six counts of fraud and perjury for purportedly concealing the campaign loan.

Lawmaking in the House slowed considerably while the impeachment proceedings went on. There is concern a similar productivity dip will hit the Senate once the trial gets under way.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, who have already been badly split over the conservative Mormon governor, are worried about the impact all this will have on state and national elections this fall.

Yet Mecham and his supporters remain resolute in denying that he did anything illegal or improper.

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