Bruce Babbitt, Arizona's governor, says that before he replaced his glasses with contact lenses, people occasionally mistook him for George F. Will, the columnist. Babbitt, a handsome fellow, probably made the replacement because he is thinking of running for president. However, do not be misled. If he runs, his campaign may be brief, but if so it will be for this reason: it may set a record for the highest ratio of substance to cosmetics.

Arizona is not a promising incubator for a presidential candidacy, least of all for a Democrat candidacy. It is the only state that has voted Republican in all the last nine presidential elections. (The Arizona that voted for Truman -- a dusty southern state, before it was watered and made to bloom by irrigation and Social Security -- no longer exists.) The only presidential candidacy from Arizona (Goldwater, 1964) carried only six states, and none north of Arizona.

Furthermore, Babbitt is only beige, even when heatedly (for him) denying that he is "colorless." But his denial is reasonable. If you listen to what he says, he is Technicolor. For example, hear him on the "means-tested society."

"I am," he says, "more liberal than the liberals on entitlements. Entitlements, like taxes, ought to be progressive." His point is sharp and barbed. It is that there are no moral arguments, and only a rickety political argument, against making entitlements and other benefits (from Social Security and farm subsidies through Medicare and the tax deductions for mortgage-interest payments) vary with needs. And there is one powerful argument in favor of relating benefits to means: the budget deficit.

High on the list of contemporary politicians Babbitt especially admires is "the early Pat Moynihan," who took the lead in casting a cool analytic eye on the welfare state, for which Moynihan has a warm heart. In a similar spirit, Babbitt says:

Between 1933 and 1970 creation of the welfare state was simple because of (Babbitt, a geologist, tends to fleck his talk with technical terms) "upside flexibility." That is, we were not near the threshold beyond which the government's portion of GNP should not rise. Today we are near that threshold, and policy makers' two goals should be targeting and progressivity.

There is a traditional Democratic argument against targeting programs by using means tests. The argument is that a middle-class nation will not support programs that benefit the poor if the programs benefit only the poor. So programs must include the middle class. This argument, says Babbitt, underestimates the public's generosity. Furthermore, the argument reflects a failure of nerve on the part of politicians unwilling to risk relying on appeals to ideas of equity rather than interests when defending the welfare state.

Babbitt says Reagan's "reductionist" approach to government amounts simply to finding targets of opportunity, cutting wherever he can rather than on some coherent principle of federal responsibility. Reaganism reduces to this: "Print money, but not very much, and raise armies, preferably many."

Babbitt's crockery-breaking talk about domestic-policy assumptions ("Liberal policy turns government into a giant potlatch of gift-giving") makes him the miner's canary of the Democratic Party. Miners used to release canaries underground and if the birds dropped dead, the miners knew there were dangerous gases in the shafts.

Babbitt's more cautious rivals (meaning all his rivals) will be watching to see if it falls like a stone when exposed to the atmosphere in gatherings of Democratic activists.

Babbitt recently said something so dumb it indicates presidential fever at its most virulent. He said "some minds" in the Reagan administration hope that some U.S. National Guardsmen will be killed in Honduras, thereby justifying an invasion of Nicaragua.

But when more characteristically temperate, he says foreign policy requires assimilation of two sorts of interests that often converge. One sort involves the traditional material and military interests. The other sort involves U.S ideology, "which is worth being aggressive about."

Democrats could stand to hear things like that in, say, Iowa, and they probably will. He probably declined to run for the Senate seat Goldwater is vacating so he can devote himself to seducing Iowa.

I am sprinkling the word "probably" around like peanuts, lest I get him in more trouble with the federal bureaucracy that rations America's political activity. Some busybodies at the Federal Election Commission have impertinently warned his staff that his jocular references to Iowa and New Hampshire verge on a declaration of candidacy, which would have cosmic consequences in terms of regulations it would trigger.

The FEC, says Babbitt, "is the most absurd body." Babbitt is a straight talker. And handsome, too.