The first battle of Operation Desert Bull began two weeks ago when Phoenix television stations aired a short clip of Terry Goddard in his naval reserve uniform. Fife Symington reacted angrily, accusing his opponent in the governor's race of taking advantage of Persian Gulf patriotism.

"I'm not wearing a uniform," Symington, a former air force captain, complained to reporters, "and I'm an honest-to-God veteran who fought in a war."

Goddard, a naval reserve commander, indignantly called Symington's attack a "low blow." Goddard claimed it wasn't his fault that the media had chosen to show file footage of him in uniform while reporters wondered whether the former Phoenix mayor, if elected governor, could be called away from Arizona into action in the Gulf. Besides, his staff members say, Goddard's status is an issue that the Symington campaign has quietly urged voters and the press to examine.

While Goddard's staffers fretted about Symington's "low blow," they launched a counteroffensive, claiming that Symington--who won a Bronze Star for his military service--has tried to trick voters into thinking he was a "top gun." In reality, they say, Symington was more of a Gomer Pyle.

THE GODDARD TROOPS insist that rumors their candidate soon may be packing his duffel bag are groundless.

His handlers relish the patriotic picture of the gubernatorial hopeful decked out in his navy blues, proudly proclaiming, as he has several times in past weeks, that he would be "honored to serve if called."

But the attractive sound bite aside, they blanch at the prospect of losing voters worried that a Governor Goddard would be called away to command a real naval vessel. After all, the ship of state has been rudderless long enough.

Jim West, a Goddard spokesperson, dismisses the possibility that his boss could soon be sailing off to war, leaving Arizona in the hands of Secretary of State Dick Mahoney. He says that if Goddard were to win the February 26 election, he could resign his commission "anytime he wants."

"Terry has quite a few options," West says, "including applying for what the military calls `key employee status,' which would exempt him. Or he could resign. In any case, I don't believe the military would call up a chief executive. I would imagine he would only go if he lost the election."

Navy Captain John Crawton, a Pentagon spokesperson, says that no governor has served in an armed conflict since before the Civil War and that the military may exempt important public officials who are also in the reserves. "It's doubtful that a sitting governor would end up lobbing shells at Iraqis out in the desert," he says. "It is slightly possible, of course. No matter who they are, they have to fulfill their obligation. But I don't think it is something to worry unnecessarily about."

IN FIFE SYMINGTON'S campaign literature and TV commercials, voters are treated to a photo of Captain Symington in sunglasses and aviator gear, a la Tom Cruise, standing next to the cockpit ladder of a Vietnam-era jet fighter.

It is, Goddard staffers say, a picture that speaks volumes--of disinformation. "Fife is doing his best, in his fliers and in TV ads, too, to make people believe that he was a fighter pilot. Come on, look at that photo. What does it make you think?" Jim West says.

Instead of serving as a fighter jock, the Goddard camp scoffs, Symington was merely a paper pusher and air traffic controller. West says he was merely one of the "asphalt grunts," brightly lighted directional batons in hands, who shepherded returning jets into position on the tarmac for refueling and repair--kind of like the orange-jumpsuit-clad workers at Sky Harbor International Airport or the guys who wave cars into parking spaces at football games.

In addition, they charge, Symington was not stationed in Vietnam, but at a command post in Thailand, safely ensconced in the rear with the gear and away from the shooting war.

To mask this rather unglamorous war record, West says, Symington made the photo part of his publicity package in an effort to subtly create the image of "war hero" in the minds of voters.

If the photo is calculated to deceive, it has met with some degree of success. Symington has been erroneously reported as serving as a wartime pilot by several Arizona newspapers--including New Times.

Neither Symington nor his aides would return phone calls to discuss the issue, but his campaign workers are telling interested callers that Symington "planned and implemented" search-and-rescue missions for downed air force fliers in Thailand. They say they know nothing about whether his responsibilities included playing aircraft traffic cop.

After repeated questioning, one office staffer admitted that Symington was not himself a fighter pilot and didn't see actual combat. "I think the Bronze Star was sort of an administrative thing," he says.

One GOP activist, a Symington supporter, laughs at that and says, "What did he get the medal for? Typing?"

He adds: "The only combat Terry or Fife has ever or will ever do is with the legislature. And from the looks of them, that's a good thing, too. Neither one of them is exactly a Rambo."

Not that it really matters. After all, Arizona's last elected governor, Evan Mecham, really was a wartime fighter pilot.

"It's doubtful that a sitting governor would end up lobbing shells at Iraqis out in the desert."

"I think the Bronze Star was sort of an administrative thing.