TEMPE, ARIZ. -- The air inside the tightly packed senior citizens hall grew warmer and stuffier until, once again, the ideological and social divisions that have severely fractured this state's Republican Party burst forth from a angry woman in the fifth row.
Former representative Sam Steiger, answering questions with the four other Republican gubernatorial candidates, had just endorsed a ballot measure that would make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid state holiday. This would remove, he said, the harmful impression "that we're a state of bigots."
The woman, part of an enthusiastic minority supporting controversial former governor Evan Mecham in his attempt to reclaim the job, could not restrain herself. "Don't call me a bigot," she declared, and a rumble of discontent passed through the crowd.
After being impeached and removed from office by the state legislature in 1988 for misusing money from supporters and interfering with the investigation of a death threat by one of his aides, Mecham, 66, has sought every opportunity for vindication.
This is his sixth campaign for the governorship, which he won in 1986 largely because of a split in Republican ranks, and most of the GOP establishment would like to be rid of him. But he is a viable candidate because of his hold on a hard core of fervent conservatives known to him as the "Mecham Militia" and to his enemies as the "Evanistas." Pollsters do not rule out a Mecham victory in Tuesday's primary. The winner in November will succeed Democrat Rose Mofford, who replaced Mecham after his impeachment but declined to run for another term.
Recent surveys show that Fife Symington, a Phoenix developer and early supporter of the grass-roots campaign to remove Mecham as governor, apparently has a substantial lead over runner-up Mecham. A KAET-TV poll conducted by Arizona State University gave Symington 32 percent, Mecham 12 percent, Steiger 7 percent, Maricopa County Supervisor Fred Koory 5 percent and management consultant Bob Barnes 1 percent.
But that poll and a similar one by O'Neil Associates Valley Monitor revealed a huge undecided vote, 43 and 44 percent, respectively, adding fuel to Mecham's contention that his voters, suspicious of pollsters, are saving their opinions for the ballot box.
Symington's lead is 11 points in a poll taken for Tribune Newspapers and KPNX-TV in Phoenix last week. He leads Mecham 29 to 18 percent with 22 percent undecided.
"He regularly pulls in 5 or 6 more percentage points than he shows in the polls," said Symington, 45, who has financed many downtown development projects, including some in minority areas. "You ignore Mecham only at your own peril. He has an aggressive grass-roots organization."
Symington is the kind of candidate to make Mecham loyalists, who represent a rural, anti-elitist strain in Arizona politics, mount the barricades. He is close to the wealthy Phoenix business establishment that has been a favorite target for Mecham, a successful automobile dealer.
Symington comes from an affluent Maryland family related to the Symingtons of Missouri, once a power in national Democratic politics, and did not come to Arizona until he was assigned here as an Air Force officer after graduating from Harvard. He has the endorsement of former senator Barry Goldwater (R), has raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions -- 40 percent of it his money -- and has outspent Mecham and other contenders at least 4 to 1.
The bitter Republican primary has created a widespread impression that former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard, the almost certain Democratic nominee, would defeat the surviving GOP candidate, even though Republicans hold a 46 percent to 43 percent registration advantage.
Steiger, a former Mecham ally with an acid sense of humor, has suggested that GOP voters choose him instead of the front-runners because Mecham's 20 percent hard-core Republican backers will not support Symington in the general election and 40 percent of Republicans would even favor a Democrat rather than Mecham.
At a forum sponsored by the Tribune newspapers in this Phoenix suburb Thursday night, Symington added to the sense of irreconcilable differences by declaring, to boos, that if he lost the primary, "I'll support all the Republican candidates, but I'll not vote for Evan Mecham."
For all he has been through, Mecham seems little changed. He expresses himself in the same even-toned, sometimes soft voice, and friends praise his loyalty and his sense of humor. But his removal from office, his firm opposition to a paid holiday in honor of King and his steely refusal to soft-pedal controversial opinions have weakened support even among Republicans once drawn to his candor. He told an interviewer Tuesday, for instance, that he would fire homosexual state workers.
"Evan Mecham looks extremely honest and seems to have a lot of integrity," said Susan Patterson, an elementary school teacher at the forum. "But he has alienated so many people and the press that I just don't think he can get the job done."
Symington has benefited from editorial endorsements by the major newspapers high on Mecham's black list. Arizona can "leave the bitterness, divisions, programs and personalities of the past behind," said the Phoenix Gazette, "by nominating a strong, decisive, decent man like Fife Symington."
Whatever happens Tuesday, the state will still have a troubled economy and a growing budget deficit. In November, the four-year King holiday dispute may be resolved as voters decide on two complicated ballot measures. One would swap the paid Columbus Day holiday for a paid King holiday, and the other would allow state workers paid leave on both days.
Mecham has said he will vote against both measures, but, if elected, not oppose the voters' wishes if either passes. In a mass mailing to supporters, he ignored the holiday issue and presented himself as leader of a conservative team of legislative and statewide candidates determined to prevent further tax increases and other excesses in a state government in "almost total chaos." The letter said in boldface type: "The greatest political victory in the history of Arizona is within our grasp!"