IOWA -- That morning in Waterloo his plane had refused to start until its engine was swaddled in blankets and warmed with blow-dryers. He'd spent the better part of the day tooling around Des Moines in a temperamental van whose engine cut out every quarter mile or so. Now, he was hunched half frozen in a five-seat airplane gazing out the window at a tiny landing strip that was barely visible in the moonlight.

Bruce Babbitt had taken his presidential campaign to southwestern Iowa, but now he had no place to land it.

The pilot coaxed the plane into a gradual descent. "That's the highway you're about to land on," Babbitt said. The pilot coaxed the plane skyward. Five minutes later, as they were about to touch down in nearby Omaha, an air traffic controller's voice crackled on the radio: The lights were on in Iowa. The plane turned back.

Babbitt will spend the next four weeks trying to make this last-second welcome a metaphor for his presidential quest. The former Arizona governor has campaigned in Iowa for more than a year. He pedaled across the state in a bicycle marathon, opened his Des Moines office before any other candidate, staked out comprehensive positions on the issues and aired the earliest campaign commercials in electoral history.

All of which has made him the choice of 2 to 3 percent of the voters contacted in the most recent statewide polls. At an Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Babbitt predicted that the Democrats would nominate "someone who is not now in the race, such as Cuomo, Bradley . . . or me."

The question is, why is this man smiling?

"I now foresee life for myself beyond Iowa and New Hampshire," Babbitt says. Life on the campaign trail has never been better, and he professes to have "a wonderful feeling" about the Feb. 8 caucuses. His candidacy was all but buried after his face-twitching, head-bobbing performance during a televised debate last July. But he made himself credible once again in December during an NBC debate when he literally stood up for the proposition that reducing the budget deficit would require raising taxes and cutting expenditures.

That routine, which Babbitt himself calls "a gimmick," did not play well with people who make their living watching politics on television, but it had a host of beneficial effects. Babbitt's campaign is still among the poorest, but he is spending less time and raising more money in personal fund-raising appeals via the telephone. "We're staying in hotels now," says advance man Dave Van Note. "And there's no more six to a room."

He has also been the beneficiary of increasingly favorable press. In a Brookings Institution poll of the nation's political press corps, he was selected as the most qualified Democratic candidate. The Washington Monthly, grading the Democrats on the substance of their proposals, gave Babbitt 3.17 of a possible 4. No other candidate received more than a 1.5.

Perhaps most important, Babbitt has developed a style that suits him. Press secretary Mike McCurry calls it "the pander of candor." It is based on Babbitt's feeling that the budget deficit has engendered a "moral deficit" among the other candidates who are afraid to address it. This is not a question of economics, he says, but of "truth telling."

Despite his improving fortunes, Babbitt's liabilities remain formidable. He is an uninspiring speaker, mediocre at best on TV. (But "If they can teach Mr. Ed to talk, they can teach me," he says.) While his Iowa organization is excellent, his links to traditional Democratic interest groups -- excluding environmentalists -- are weak. "I am a candidate without a prebuilt constituency," he concedes.

Nonetheless, he persists in the notion that speaking truth to the masses not only makes a man a prophet, it makes him a president.

"I think there is kind of a slow-motion recognition that there is something fundamentally out of balance in the economy and that it does have real world effects," he says. "The credit card analogy is correct. There's a common-sensical realization that there is a cliff out there."

The white-haired man in the cardigan follows the candidate into the lavatory and sidles up to the adjacent urinal. It is 14 degrees below zero in Council Bluffs.

"I was just asking myself why anybody would leave Arizona to come visit weather like this," the old man says.

"I've been wondering that myself," says Babbitt, who is still thawing out from the plane ride.

"What I'm going to do is tie a snow shovel on the front of my car and drive south," the man says. "When someone asks me 'What's that?' then that's where I'll stay."

This is what Babbitt calls the retail phase of the campaign, the first primaries and caucuses, where voters have a chance to take a candidate's measure face to face. In the banquet room of the Pizza King restaurant, 65 people are eating spaghetti and cheese bread, waiting for the candidate. The man they are about to meet is tall, blond, sturdy-looking and somewhat stiff. He is surprisingly witty, given his reputation as a poor communicator.

He is also a whole lot easier to introduce since rave reviews began appearing in the nation's press. His local chairwoman, Jan Sutherland, reads some of the most laudatory:

"The most imaginative program for reform since that of the New Deal." (Jack Beatty, the Los Angeles Times.)

"In almost every response Babbitt shows that he has easily the most original mind of the candidates." (Michael Barone, The Washington Post.)

"Of the six announced Democrats he has the supplest mind, the most coherent and interesting set of proposals, and the most impressive record in public office." (Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Republic.)

Babbitt, dressed as usual in a navy suit and red tie, tells the story of his aborted landing in Omaha. He sounds a few familiar themes -- the need for a national sales tax, the importance of "needs testing" government entitlement programs. Then he takes out on a new tack.

One of Babbitt's favorite ideas is that America needs "workplace democracy." This notion, that workers should have a voice in running their companies and that they should share proportionately in their successes, is popular among liberal economists, but difficult to put across when an audience is deep into its pasta.

Babbitt's advisers had been searching for what campaign manager Chris Hamel calls "a black hat," a company whose approach is antithetical to the candidate's philosophy. They settled on IBP, formerly known as Iowa Beef Processors, the largest meat packing firm in the country. IBP is a huge presence in Iowa, so the attack is risky. On the other hand, IBP has recently been hit with a $2.45 million fine, the largest in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "I was not attacking a model corporate citizen," Babbitt says later.

As Arizona's attorney general, Babbitt helped block subsidies when IBP was seeking to build a plant in Yuma County. Now he labels it a "corporate outlaw."

"People started asking me, 'Why should we want a corporation which systematically cuts its employees' wages? That has the worst safety record in the entire industry? Which runs lines with an accident rate of unbelievable proportion? Which has an employee turnover of 100 percent a year in some plants because they want people in and out before they qualify for the basic benefits, including health insurance?' " he says.

The attack hits home. After the speech Babbitt is peppered by questions from local reporters. Most are of the "Who asked you to butt in, anyway?" variety.

"IBP is an example of the road to disaster in American society," Babbitt says. The story runs in papers throughout the Midwest.

The full moon seems to rest on the wing. Babbitt sits behind the pilot, wrapped in a raincoat, hands thrust in his pocket. What lies ahead is an hour in the air, a quick beer with reporters and 5 1/2 hours of sleep. The next day begins with a 7 a.m. breakfast with 20 supporters at the Best Western in Sioux City. The meanness of his circumstances and the slimness of his chances raise the question of why Babbitt bothers.

One does not sense with him, as one does with other candidates, that he is running for president as an exercise in self-definition. He seems to be seeking neither love nor forgiveness, nor is he driven by passionate allegiance to a single cause. His very reasonableness argues against his involvement in a process as unreasonable as running for president.

He is motivated, he says, by two things. "One is the genuine pleasure I get out of the process and particularly out of government. The other is something that I didn't entirely appreciate and that is the day-to-day satisfaction that by being on the stage you can change the course of political history by the way you drive the debate. You can herd other people into the arena and make them respond."

This is an opportunity that would seem to have passed him by after the first televised debate. His performance was so poor that his fund-raising slowed to a trickle and his campaign seemed on the brink of extinction. He thought about quitting, but not seriously.

"It would have been absurd to toss in my towel and say I'm ending my acting career with catcalls my first night on the stage," he says.

The months ahead were the worst of his political life. "Having to stop every three or four days and take a day off to make phone calls to meet the payroll," he says. "Giving speeches, laying out positions, and wondering whether it was just sinking into a black hole never to be heard from again. When there is a great silence about all the things you are talking about, it gets a little eerie out here. You sort of hear your footsteps."

Babbitt was a victim of his past success. He hadn't had a difficult campaign since he entered politics 15 years ago. He'd always known he was weak on TV but it had never mattered.

"In Arizona it never had much effect because I overwhelmed the process by my personal presence," he says. "It was just kind of a sidestream: 'This guy ain't much of a communicator.' But I knew everybody in the state and I kind of overwhelmed it."

Part of Babbitt's problem is an abstractedness, a love of ideas for their own sake that can make him seem a cooler personality than he really is. His warmth is most evident in small groups, and one-on-one interviews, particularly when he is speaking of his wife Hattie and their two sons, Christopher, 12, and T. J., 10.

"When I ran for president they discovered that I needed them," he says. "I'd come home every week or 10 days in real need of somebody to say, 'We really care about you. We really think you are terrific,' and urge me on.

"They saw me as a vulnerable human being. They saw me fall on my face and they helped me get up. They'd only known me as a colossally successful office holder sitting on a mountaintop always successful and maybe a little less human in their eyes. And all of a sudden there was a wonderfully rich relationship when I came home whipped, out of money, with bad press reviews, wondering where I was going to get the next dime."

After the humiliation in July he began working with a consultant on his television appearance. He fares best when he is the sole focus of attention as he was yesterday during a playful, confident hour-long PBS interview with Marvin Kalb. His success in Iowa may hinge on his next television appearance when PBS and CNN broadcast the Des Moines Register debate on Friday night. "I think I came from hopeless to passable and that's a small victory," he says.

It is midafternoon in Des Moines. The temperature is hovering at minus 10. Bruce Babbitt's campaign van pulls into the parking lot of Taste of Thai Restaurant, every campaign junkie's Iowa headquarters. Inside a group of perhaps 50 volunteers is waiting. Many have just arrived from Phoenix where it is rumored to be much warmer.

Chris Hamel hops into the car. "Here it is," he says quickly. "You've got a roomful of new people in there and a lot of them have driven 31 hours from Phoenix, so make them feel good."

"What do you think I should tell them?" Babbitt asks.

"Tell them we're going to win."

Babbitt walks through the door smiling. "Just like Bangkok in January," he says to the restaurant's workers as they cluster around him for a picture.

In the next room Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Babbitt's highest ranking supporter in the state, is addressing the volunteers. He is one of about five people in the room older than 25.

Babbitt does not make a smashing entrance, just slips quietly into the room behind Miller. "Oh, there he is," Miller says. "I didn't even see you come in, Bruce."

This speech is an easy one. Babbitt has a ready-made anecdote. It seems that a handful of his Phoenix-based volunteers made the trip north in field manager Bill Scheel's car. About a hundred miles outside of Phoenix it broke down and kept breaking down for the rest of what became a 31-hour trip. It turned out there was something wrong with the starter.

"That's kind of a metaphor for the Babbitt campaign," Babbitt says. "At first it stalled out and you had to push it to get it going, but we are way past that now. I think the timing is perfect. I'll have you in Washington to celebrate in January in 1989."

When the applause dies down he tells them that he will soon be on his way to Manchester, a town in the northeast quadrant of the state where IBP is hoping to build a large pork processing plant. He is planning to speak against it at a public meeting. "You may have to go in Bill Scheel's car to rescue me," he says.

If Babbitt has any chance to finish well in Iowa he owes it to the people in this room. His organizations here and in New Hampshire are widely admired and Miller is one of the state's more popular politicians.

"I thought he had all of Gary's ideas and none of Gary's drawbacks," says Miller of choosing Babbitt over Hart. "I thought he would have the best chance to win a national election. We're at the point where we need a disproportionate amount of the people in the middle of the spectrum and he can reach them.

"My only reservation was how viable was his candidacy. But if people like me who believe in him waited, he had no chance of winning."

The poor showing in recent polls is about to change, Miller thinks. "The message has not yet caught fire to the extent it can be measured in the polls," he says. "But there is a growing consensus and awareness that Bruce has the corner on the market on new ideas."

There also appears to be a growing number of people who agree with Babbitt's prescription for deficit reduction. At the end of each speech he asks the audience to "stand up" -- as he did on NBC -- for the proposition that balancing the budget requires additional revenue and fewer expenses. He tried it yesterday during the interview with Kalb and had most of the studio audience on its feet.

Babbitt recalls that the first time he suggested raising taxes, his audience saw the specter of Walter Mondale. "I gave a speech at the National Press Club in July," he says. "These guys thought I was jumping off the building in despair. They thought it was exhibitionism of the most desperate kind."

But he also remembers the day his message began to sink in. "I gave a speech to Americans for Democratic Action in Washington and I challenged them. I said, 'Look, in an age of limited resources liberals have to understand that you can't buy everybody off, that ultimately you are perverting the liberal agenda by refusing to make choices.

"And they really bought it. They began to understand that just as you favor progressive taxation, you must favor progressive benefits because it is the flip side. And all of a sudden, there in the heart of the liberal establishment, people were saying, 'Yeah.' "

Babbitt does not come about his liberalism genetically. His family began building a ranching and trading empire in 1886, just four years after the railroad opened up the territory. Soon Babbitt Bros. Trading Co. was the premier mercantile firm in northern Arizona.

Bruce was born in Flagstaff in 1938. Friends remember a gangly young man who was never hip, whatever hip was that year. Yet he had a wide range of friends and got himself elected president of the student body. It was not until he attended Notre Dame, where he was also student body president, that he came to political consciousness. He now calls himself a prochoice Catholic.

"In the spring of 1959, right after Castro came to power, a friend of mine and I hitchhiked from Chicago to Miami at the beginning of spring vacation and then made our way over to Havana and spent about 10 days just interviewing people and were kind of student journalists," he remembers. "It was an important time because the guy I went with was a good friend of mine who has since died. He was a passionate social activist and I was just beginning to awaken to civil rights and other issues. I remember going from Chicago to Miami, standing beside the roadside and riding with people through the night and having an intense, nonstop, three-day argument about politics. And at the end I kind of crossed over the divide from being a presumptive Republican to knowing that my home was on the other side of the political fence."

After graduation he earned a masters degree in geology at University of Newcastle. But in 1961, while researching the fossil record for Gulf Oil in Bolivia, his life took another turn. Distressed by the poverty he saw around him, Babbitt decided to become involved in land reform. He thought he needed a law degree to do that, so in the fall he enrolled at Harvard Law School. For several summers, he returned to South America to work in Peace Corps-type volunteer programs.

Babbitt thought he would work in Colombia after Harvard, but the civil rights movement "drew me back home." He joined the movement in Selma in March 1965, following Bloody Sunday. Afterward he took a job with the Office of Economic Development developing school desegregation programs, working with migrant workers and helping establish a legal services program for Native Americans.

One night in 1966, while flying stand-by from Dallas to Austin, he met Hattie Coons, who was then in college. A year later they were married. She went on to a career as a highly regarded trial attorney.

In 1967 Babbitt moved to Phoenix where he spent seven years in private practice. As a trial attorney, Babbitt became increasingly disenchanted with the state attorney general's office, which he believed was "devoted to the defense of racial discrimination." In 1974 he decided to seek the office.

He was at the time, in his wife's words, "a tall skinny ectomorph without any public speaking ability." Yet he won and has not lost an election since.

Babbitt transformed the attorney general's office into what he liked to call "a huge public interest law firm." He prosecuted land fraud cases and organized crime, and was rumored to be a target of the same mob that murdered reporter Don Bolles. It was Babbitt's office that won the convictions against Bolles' killers.

He became governor in March 1978 through no effort of his own. The elected governor had resigned to become ambassador to Argentina, leaving then-secretary of state Wesley Bolin in charge. When Bolin died, Babbitt became governor. He was elected in his own right with 52 percent of the vote in 1978 and returned with 63 percent in 1982.

Working with perhaps the most conservative legislature in the country, he used the veto a record 114 times. Yet he still won increased spending for daycare and education, established a Medicare program and raised the state's paltry welfare payments. His most widely heralded success was passage of the 1980 law to protect the state's groundwater.

Babbitt did not seek a third term and was succeeded by the now notorious Evan Mecham. Then he bypassed a run for the Senate seat vacated by Barry Goldwater to concentrate on the presidential longshot.

"I wasn't absolutely certain when I started in on this what campaigning would be like, whether I really had the staying power, because I hadn't been in a tough political race since I entered politics," he says. "It's kind of like going out in middle age and putting together an expedition to climb Mount Everest. You don't want to find yourself at 20,000 feet asking yourself 'Is this really something that I want to do?' I found out that it was."

When Babbitt began his attack on IBP he thought he might find himself in the midst of a full-blown controversy, but the West Delaware Junior High School gymnasium is only half as full as he'd hoped. The opposition has declined to attend. IBP hasn't sent a representative, neither has the mayor of Manchester, who supports the proposed plant. Most of the 200 people are ardently opposed to having the pork packing plant in their town. "I was preaching to the choir," Babbitt says later.

He preaches for about 15 minutes and draws two rousing ovations. But when he steps into the van for the two-hour drive to the Quad Cities, he says, "We missed our opportunity."

It is possible to believe, hearing the cheers and addressing the cameras at each stop, that you are the only one out here, that eventually you will prevail. But at the end of the day, when the campaign is put into perspective, Babbitt realizes how far he still has to go and how much stronger fellow Democrats Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon are running in Iowa.

Gary Hart's reentry has also confused matters, thrown him a bit, as it has the other candidates. Last Sunday Babbitt watched Hart's interview with Kalb.

"Hart went out of his way to talk about Bruce Babbitt," he says. "He said, 'Here's the one guy I will credit as having laid out a coherent set of ideas.' And I'm sitting there watching that, saying, again, in kind of a quizzical way, 'Hey, how nice of Gary to acknowledge this. That's really fine of him.'

"McCurry is saying, 'Come on, you ought to be asking what's his motive. He's trying to horn in on your territory.' "

He is not sure how to handle Hart on Friday in the Des Moines Register debate when the once and current candidate will take the stage with his Democratic opponents for the first time. "Look, we're all thinking about it," Babbitt says. "I tend to think that the souffle' will either rise or fall of its own momentum. This thing can be overdramatized and people might end up overreaching when the best thing they can do is let it happen."

He realizes that he needs to shake loose some Hart supporters. But then he needs to shake loose some of everybody's supporters.

Dukakis, who has the best financed Democratic campaign, appeals to many of the voters Babbitt covets. "Our constituencies overlap," Babbitt says. "There is no question about it. I would guess that what tends to drive them one way or the other is that the purists gravitate toward me and the people who say we are looking for a winner inexplicably gravitate toward Dukakis.

"Simon and I have overlapping constituencies in some odd places, among the kind of pure ideological types. And the common wisdom is that {Richard} Gephardt, that we're both kind of down in tier two and that somehow there's room for one of us to rise, and the other to collapse. And Jesse's constituency is of some genuine interest because nobody knows exactly what that adds up to in terms of turnout.

"I've got the Hispanic vote in Iowa, unhappily it is not as large as it might be in Arizona. I do well among the good government types. I will do well in Iowa City and in Ames, those are university towns. And I've got a huge constituency in the far northeast corner of Iowa. I don't know why. I've met a lot of people up there."

He is looking out the window, but it is too dark to see. "I don't know what is going to happen in the next 30 days, but I know I've got some respect out there," Babbitt says. "This thing is wide open to be won or lost and I sit here looking out across a thousand miles of snow, freezing, after a 16-hour day saying, 'What more can you ask? I've given everything I got.'"