PHOENIX -- She started out as a bureaucrat, but was transformed into crafty politician.

The year was 1953, and Rose Mofford was serving as executive secretary to the Arizona tax commission. Without warning, she was fired because -- as her boss explained publicly at the time -- "it was better to have a man in that particular job."

"I was crushed," Mofford says today. "My father had just died . . . I thought I had done an outstanding job, I really did. But I said to myself, 'I will overcome this.' And, I'll tell you, wherever that man is now -- if he's in heaven, he must be falling out!"

What she means is that "Aunt Rosie" -- as she has come to be affectionately called -- has most certainly overcome her one career setback. As secretary of state, she found herself on Feb. 5 literally plopped into the country's hottest political seat: the governorship of Arizona.

No one would have paid much attention to her sudden rise to Democratic "acting governor" if it hadn't been for the fact that the man she is entitled by law to at least temporarily replace -- Republican Evan Mecham -- has become something of a national joke. He is desperately hanging onto his political life and will need nothing short of a political hat trick to survive. He faces a state Senate impeachment trial next week, a criminal prosecution next month and a May recall election.

Central Casting couldn't have come up with a better replacement for Mecham -- a plain-talking, wisecracking matriarch who seems as if she would be more comfortable organizing fundraisers for the state Democratic Party than leading it. Her trademark is a '50s-style, lacquered platinum beehive that not even Arizona's summer heat can wilt. Cartoonists have a field day with it, and she plays along. ("I have my hair done once a week," she confesses, "and I don't roll around in bed.") Every year, she personally writes 4,000 Christmas cards sporting her own caricature. The beehive is always featured.

One of Mecham's allies, GOP Rep. Bob Stump, calls her "the most popular elected official in Arizona." And former governor Bruce Babbitt, whose term coincided with Mofford's service as secretary of state, agrees: "She's gotten there by appealing to the people rather than by ideology."

Still, Mofford is by no means sure of keeping the job, and could even find herself kicked out of office by the recall aimed at Mecham. In fact, sometimes it seems as if there are as many potential outcomes as there are candidates who have expressed interest in the seat -- which at last count approached 90.

To say things are in a state of political disarray here is putting it very gently.

But for now anyway, the state belongs to this 65-year-old Mae West look-alike, whose 47-year political career has made her a comforting presence. Mofford's grandmotherly demeanor is in sharp relief to Mecham's, a politician who managed not only to aggravate the Democrats but mainstream members of his own party.

Still, Mofford has her detractors. Some dismiss her as a short-term caretaker about whom Tucson's City Magazine remarked "you could wait for Godot while trying to remember if she's taken any stands on issues . . ." She'll be back marching in Old West parades, they insist, when the nightmare is over.

Perhaps. But to these doubters she issues a dare: Watch me.

"I have no intentions of being a caretaker," Mofford states flatly, sitting in her new digs, the governor's office. "As long as I'm in this office, we will be an aggressive administration."

Mofford and her hastily assembled team are barely settled in the suite of offices from which Mecham was evicted two weeks ago. (He has since been provided other offices by the state until his status is resolved.) One day last week, chaos ruled as secretaries scrambled to find typewriters, phones rang incessantly and Mofford ushered visitors in and out. The most serene part of the scene was the view of Camelback Mountain from this ninth-floor spot in the state offices next to a modest domed capitol building.

"I'll tell you," she quips. "I'm a devout Catholic -- I even met with the pope when he was here -- and I don't know what I must have done to God to deserve this!"

One-liners aside, she has moved quickly to assemble a first-rate transitional operation. What she may lack in intellect, observers say, she compensates for in an ability to administrate and delegate. Within hours of assuming office, she chose a temporary staff that includes Babbitt's former top aide, attorney Andrew Hurwitz; a former reporter for the Arizona Republic who also worked for Babbitt, Athia Hardt; and American Express executive Karen Scates, who has had extensive experience in party politics.

Mofford's quick moves suggest that she had to be thinking about this place and this job for a while.

Mecham's troubles began immediately after he took office in 1987, when he rescinded a state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. He continued to get himself in hot water by making statements insulting to minorities, calling homosexuality an "unacceptable life style" and defending a history book that referred to blacks as "pickaninnies." Six months into his administration, an ad hoc citizens group was in full force collecting signatures for his recall.

Mecham also caused some consternation in late January when he told a group of lawyers that someone was using laser beams to spy on him.

His situation became grave when the House voted to impeach him Feb. 5 for "high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance" -- charging that he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan, borrowed $80,000 from the state entertainment fund for his automobile dealership, and attempted to obstruct an investigation of a death threat to a public official who was cooperating with the grand jury investigating him. He has also been indicted by the Arizona state grand jury on three counts of perjury, two counts of willful concealment of the $350,000 loan, and one count of filing a false campaign report.

It was, ironically, Mofford's secretary of state office that was required to validate the 301,032 signatures (216,746 are needed) supporting the recall election. And so, as state officials became more vocal in their criticisms of Mecham, Mofford sat tight. The day he was impeached, his powers were stripped, and she automatically inherited them.

"I have never had a problem with Governor Mecham," she says. "I would not make a statement to hurt him or influence the proceedings. Anyone would be careful."

Is she worried she seems wishy-washy when it comes to Mecham? "It isn't that," she says. "No one has ever been put in this situation before. I'm serving in a dual role."

Even today, while taking charge, she remains determined not appear eager. She still receives her $50,000 secretary of state's salary -- not the $75,000 governor's salary. When she moved the two floors up to Mecham's office, she arrived with only her appointment book, leaving behind three basketball-size Rolodexes and an extensive Indian art collection.

"I wouldn't be that presumptuous," she says. "We have to wait and see what happens . . ."

Apparently, this has not been enough assurance for Mecham, who late last week demanded that she forward all his official state mail unopened and accused her of "turning a temporary acting governorship into complete disruption and replacement of my administration." Mofford has promised to forward Mecham's personal mail.

Certainly her actions in the past two weeks have been decisive. She favors a holiday for King and has urged the legislature to resolve the issue quickly; reassigned one of Mecham's most controversial aides, Max Hawkins, who left to join his former boss; called together four former Arizona governors for advice; met with state legislators from both sides of the aisle and all the agency chiefs, asking for support; and began lobbying the federal government to build the $4.4 billion supercollider atom smasher in Arizona. For months, state officials worried that the Department of Energy might choose another site (Arizona is one of seven finalists) for the facility because of the state's leadership crisis.

"The supercollider is critical to the state and the one thing that could galvanize everyone," says Robert Neuman, an aide to Democratic Rep. Morris Udall. "It's a symbolic fusion issue and she grabbed it -- which showed she had some political acumen. A lot of people were surprised."

"I had my concerns about her, too," says Glen Davis, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, "but what I have seen in the past week has really impressed me."

"She's done everything I would have advised her to do: get a first-rate staff, and build a consensus," says Babbitt. "What she needs to do now is define herself, not by liberal or conservative labels, but by cutting her own cloth."

Mofford has always done things her way.

She climbed the political ladder not as a pioneer feminist but by learning to maneuver in what was long a male bastion. She's comfortable with back-room backslapping, and has been known to tell a racy joke or two. She once remarked that she heard a certain politician's water bed was nicknamed Lake Placid, and that she knew another pol could keep his mind on two things at once because he owned a Dolly Parton poster.

Rose Persica was born the youngest of six in the tiny town of Globe, Ariz., barely a decade after the Arizona territory became a state. Her parents were Austrian immigrants; her father worked in the copper mines.

She says she was very close to her family and even cites her relationship with them as the reason her marriage to T.R. (Lefty) Mofford ended in divorce 20 years ago. They stayed friends after their parting, and when he was ill, Mofford took him into her home and nursed him for two years until his death.

"I had no problem with him," she says. "It wasn't his fault that we got a divorce . . . I seemed to want everything on my terms . . . I could not tear myself away from my family."

She chose state government as a career in 1942, after turning down a full scholarship to the University of Arizona, as well as a lucrative offer to play professional basketball for the All American Redheads. (Politics has been part of her life since childhood; after all, she had been elected class president six times during her school years.)

After circulating election petitions for a friend running for state treasurer, she was offered a job as his secretary after he won. "She came down as a little gal from one of mining towns," recalls Udall. "She was a bright young thing."

Mofford went on to become a secretary for a tax commissioner, and then was promoted to executive secretary for the entire commission. After she was fired from that job, she again landed a job as a government secretary -- this time to Secretary of State Wes Bolin. She spent more than 22 years with Bolin, when a series of political coincidences shaped her fate.

In 1977, then-governor Raul Castro resigned to become ambassador to Argentina, which meant that Bolin succeeded him. Bolin in turn appointed Mofford to replace him as secretary of state. Six months later, Bolin was struck by a fatal heart attack and Mofford was in line to become governor. But because she was appointed and not elected, the office transferred to the attorney general -- Bruce Babbitt.

Mofford is fond of boasting that she's worked with 12 of Arizona's governors. "I was talking to Governor Babbitt in his first or second week -- I've been friends with all the ones I worked with -- he asked me something about one of the former governors. It wasn't an argument. I just said, 'No governor, that isn't right.' I said, 'Young man, I was here when you were born!' "

After Mofford became secretary of state, she ran successfully for the post three times; in the last election, Republicans didn't bother fielding a candidate against her.

Over the years, she's developed a reputation as a lovable -- albeit idiosyncratic -- sort. She once spotted an ad for wristwatches featuring one's own image on the face. She sent in a photo of herself and had 400 made, selling them for several years and donating the proceeds to charity. They all went.

Babbitt remembers Mofford sitting in the back of the plane on state trips, teaching his sons how to play blackjack. She's also known to answer her own phone, and often types her own letters. Late last week, she had her typewriter brought up from the secretary of state's office and now her staff hears her pecking away through the door.

While others have seen her easygoing personality as a weakness, Mofford sees it as a strength. "I am not confrontational," she says. "I think you get a lot more done by investigating and looking for different solutions."

Her staff says she's more savvy than she is articulate. "She always knows what's going on," says an adviser. "She's just extremely cautious in the way she handles things."

Longtime deputy Karen Osborne tells of when Mofford had trouble getting a pet project -- funding of a state history book -- through the legislature. "Instead of threatening the chairman of the committee or operating behind his back, she marched right onto the Senate floor and knelt down and kissed his ring. She said 'Shall I do this now or after you get the bill through?' That bill made it.

"All everyone wants to know," says Osborne, "is 'can she run the state?' Why don't they stop criticizing and look at what she's done so far -- which is cut through the nonsense and try to force some solutions?"

Seldom has so much been riding on how one man's career ends.

After months of public squabbling and headlines, Mecham is finally on the sidelines. But the fun has just begun.

His impeachment trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 29, and the criminal trial March 22. Even if he's twice acquitted, there's the recall election to face. According to the state constitution, Mecham had the option of resigning once the recall signatures were validated. By not doing so, he automatically became a candidate for his own office.

Unless . . .

Here are a few of the "what ifs":

If Mecham is removed from office or convicted of a crime before the recall, he would be taken off the ballot. An impeachment conviction also allows the Senate to include a "Dracula cause," according to a Mofford aide, precluding Mecham from ever holding public office.

Mofford would officially succeed him following the conviction -- which would seem to be the end of the succession fight.

Not so.

Whether the state can then halt a scheduled recall election is also in question.

The attorney general, Robert Corbin, wrote an opinion stating the election must proceed, and the courts may be asked to render a final judgment. Many Democrats hope the recall would be canceled to avoid another divisive election.

Legislation is pending mandating that the recall election be canceled if Mecham is removed, but it is unlikely to be reported out of a GOP controlled legislature.

If the recall election goes forth -- which is essentially a replay of a regular gubernatorial election -- dozens of candidates could end up on the ballot, including former GOP representative John Rhodes, who announced plans to run last week, and Democrat Carolyn Warner, who was defeated by Mecham in 1986, and has the support of liberals.

And if Mofford's name automatically appears on the recall ballot because she's the governor, she could be defeated by Mecham's recall.

"Rose would be very difficult to beat," counters Babbitt. "Even for Rhodes."

"I'm a strong Carolyn Warner supporter," says Morris Udall, "but if Mofford inherits the seat, and ends up on the ballot, I would be hard-pressed not to support her. I think in that case, Carolyn would back down."

The bipartisan nightmare is that Mecham escapes conviction, and he himself runs in the recall election, which he has said he intends to do. In this case, party leaders fear that the vote would be split so many ways that Mecham could actually end up returning to the governor's chair.

For her part, Mofford steadfastly refuses to speculate on her future.

"If they choose to have me out, I'll step out," she says. "Whatever hand is dealt to me, I'll play it."