When the Mesa Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., got its advance copies of next week's "Doonesbury" cartoon strip, which takes on the state's own wildly controversial Republican Gov. Evan Mecham, the executive editor decided "this was a big political story, a story so big it transcended the worth of a normal cartoon strip."

Yesterday, accompanying a front-page story by political writer Doug MacEachern, the Tribune printed all six strips on the inside page where the story continued. The break of the embargo date on the "Doonesbury" strip -- apparently unprecedented -- annoyed officials of the syndicate that publishes it, and the cartoon itself became the talk of the town.

In a state already so boiling with discontent over Mecham that a recall campaign has collected more than half of the necessary 216,743 signatures required to start the process, the "Doonesbury" cartoons lambasting some of Mecham's more shocking views just added more boiling water to the cauldron.

"We've just had enormous public reaction -- more than I can recall to any single story," said Max Jennings, the Tribune's executive editor. "Everybody seems to be completely polarized ... We've had a number of people canceling subscriptions and we've had people in the Phoenix area calling in and asking where they can get a copy." He said about two dozen subscribers out of the 60,000 circulation had canceled.

Mecham -- elected last November -- became well known instantly for rescinding the state holiday in honor of Martin Luther King (the state's attorney general issued an opinion that it was not legal) and for refusing to disavow a textbook edited by his mentor, W. Cleon Skousen, leader of the Constitutionalist school of Republicanism, in which black children are referred to as pickaninnies.

He has also said that the increase in women working outside the home had caused the breakdown of the family. His remarks have won him the enmity of black leaders as well as prominent Republicans.

And, in July, Mecham said in response to a question about the recall movement that it was led by "a bunch of homosexuals and dissident Democrats."

When editor Jennings was the guest on a local radio talk show yesterday morning, some angry callers supported the governor's sentiment, complaining that Jennings, himself, was a homosexual and "a mush-mouthed pervert," Jennings said. Others called in praising the paper for being "real rebels," according to Jennings.

"The Mecham story is fascinating," said "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau yesterday. "It's a terrific little morality play that's being played out in the desert."

Trudeau said he was reluctant to comment on the Tribune's jump on the release date, but Lee Salem, the editorial director of Trudeau's syndicate Universal Press, in Kansas City, Mo., called it an "unfortunate and unprofessional move." Although he said it could be interpreted as breach of contract, Salem said the syndicate has not decided what, if anything, to do.

The Phoenix Gazette similarly felt the "Doonesbury" strips were politically important enough to write about on the front page yesterday, but selected five panels from all the strips to run on the front page.

"I'm not sure that we didn't handle it in our way better," said assistant managing editor Michael Hirten. "Reading all six inside kind of deadens you -- it's a one- or two-joke strip."

"That someone of Trudeau's stature -- and in something of 'Doonesbury's' popularity -- would decide to take on the governor of Arizona was news and we would treat it that way."

Among the panels, Trudeau portrays Mecham patting a black child on the head and saying, "My! What a cute little pickaninny!"

And when the governor is asked to respond to charges of racism, he replies in the strip, "Lies! Lies! Spread by queers and pickaninnies!"

Yesterday, the governor's press secretary Ron Bellus said the governor has contacted his attorneys about possible legal action against the Tribune and the "Doonesbury" strip. "The response simply is {the strips are} untruthful and they do not represent him correctly," Bellus said.

"The governor has never used the word 'pickaninny,' " Bellus said, explaining that the governor would not disavow a history book with an essay dating to the 1930s that contained the pickaninny reference. "He's not marching around saying this is how he described black children. His understanding was that it was a term of endearment -- like we would call our kids rug rats ... but he doesn't use it nor does he condone the use of it."