PHOENIX -- Literally, if not figuratively, nobody in Arizona government is above the governor, Evan Mecham. From his ninth-floor office at the Capitol, he looks down on state legislators, who might impeach him later this week, the attorney general, who will bring him to court on criminal charges in March, and the secretary of state, who has set his recall election for May. But it is only a 15-second elevator ride up to the ninth floor, where the decor in the visitors' lounge reveals the vulnerability at the top.

There are two photographs on the walls. One is a studio portrait of Mecham, the former car dealer who stunned the state's political world by winning in 1986, and has been stunning people consistently ever since. The other is an enlargement of Mecham and a smiling black man. It is inscribed: "To Gov. Evan Mecham, a man who exerted his will several times but accomplished his ends. With friendship and support, Charlie Taylor."

Ken Smith, Mecham's press secretary, was asked who Taylor was and how he became so friendly with Mecham, the governor whose first act in office was to rescind the state's holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I'm not sure," Smith said. "I think he's some Christian athlete from California." (The governor's office later identified Taylor as an Arizona builder.)

Why was Taylor's the only other picture on the wall? Was Mecham, who had followed up his King holiday ban by defending a book that called black children "pickaninnies," trying to make a point that some of his best friends are black?

Smith smiled and lighted another of the cigarettes he says he has been smoking again since he started working for Mecham. "I'll have to get back to you on that one," he said.

On the other side of the waiting room, enclosed in a glass case, are several letters sent to the governor by schoolchildren.

"Dear Gov. Mecham," one begins. "Hi, my name is Brandy Dawn Madden. I go to Ridgeland. I'm in the fourth grade. I'm 9 years old. I love to roller skate, bikeride and run. I live in Illinois. What do you like to do? Do you have a pool? I don't. What is the weather like out there?"

That letter from Rock Island arrived the day Mecham was indicted.

Another came the day that the House special counsel told the legislature why Mecham should be impeached. "Dear Gov. Mecham," it reads. "I'm 9 years old and my name is John Alston. I'm in the 4th grade at Robson School. My mom told me you were in trouble. I know you're honest. I hope things work out for you."

Below his good-luck statement, young Alston drew an illustration. It was a green helicopter with "Mecham" written on the side. The last time the images of a public official, impeachment and a helicopter were lumped in the same thought was when Richard M. Nixon lifted off from the White House lawn that August day 14 years ago.

During the final days of Nixon's presidency, it became obvious that his administration was over when Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the so-called conscience of conservatism, turned against him. If there is a parallel here today, Mecham fails to see it. The retired Goldwater called for Mecham's resignation long ago. More recently, so have four of five Republicans in the state's congressional delegation, Sen. John S. McCain III and Reps. Jim Kolbe, Jon L. Kyl and John J. Rhodes III. But Mecham, never part of the GOP establishment, has ignored their requests to step aside for the good of the party.

The battle over Evan Mecham has in essence become a struggle for the soul of the Arizona Republican Party. It has become pretty ugly. At a state party meeting last weekend, Mecham supporters threatened to walk out during a speech by McCain. Many of them jeered when Kolbe urged reconciliation, but cheered when party Chairman Burton S. Kruglick, one of Mecham's last defenders among the party brass, made a veiled attack on McCain, Rhodes and the others, who he said "have developed their own agenda."

One of McCain's top aides, Mike Morales, called Kruglick's speech "the most outrageous I have ever heard."

Most of Mecham's supporters are on the right wing of the Republican Party, often with born-again Christian affiliations. Pat Robertson for President buttons are pinned on many of their shirts, hats and lapels. Bob Groff Jr. might not be a typical Mecham fan, but he was the first in line Monday morning three hours before the governor was to appear before the House impeachment committee.

Groff, who prefers to be called by his amateur radio call sign, The Iceman, said Mecham was the victim of a "media vendetta. Those guys don't believe that you are innocent until proven guilty." He said he reached that conclusion by listening to world press reports on Mecham over his shortwave: "Radio Luxembourg and Deutschland, I listen to them, and it's a worldwide conspiracy."

Worldwide might be stretching it, but the Mecham subalterns on the ninth floor accept the rest of the conspiracy theory. "My conviction is the media is very much part of the story here," said Smith, the press secretary. Smith became part of the story as well last week when he got in a verbal joust with Pat Murphy, publisher of The Arizona Republic.

Murphy wrote a column headlined: "When shameful saga is over, how many will deny Mecham?" In it, Murphy questioned whether Mecham aides would admit in the future that they ever worked for "a governor in disgrace." Of Smith, he wrote: "Then there is Ken Smith, the governor's press secretary, whose appointment by Mecham to the inner circle seems the high point of an otherwise meager career."


Smith responded: "You predict that I will ultimately be ashamed to admit that I once worked in this administration. The only situation I can imagine in which I would hide the fact that Evan Mecham was once my boss would be the disclosure that he faked his war record to enhance his career."

Murphy became publisher at The Republic after his predecessor resigned in disgrace when it was revealed that he had faked his war record.