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Far West Politics: A WARINESS OF WASHINGTON

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1980



San Francisco

From Chugwater, Wyo., to Livengood, Alaska, to East Los Angeles, there is political grumpiness all across the great American West. The region west of the 100th meridian always has felt a bit estranged from the power centers back East -- its independence and frontier spirit not entirely a thing of the past.

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But these days, one senses a growing feeling of regional alienation. And this has to be unhappy news for those major presidential candidates perceived as part of the Washington establishment . . . which is to say, all but Ronald Reagan.

If the election were held today, the former California governor could well rope in almost all the 13-state area's 102 electoral votes (38 percent of those necessary to win in November). Jimmy Carter lost to Gerald Ford in all but Hawaii four years ago.

"He never had a constituency here. He wasn't liked then, and there's no reason to think [Westerners] would go for him now," says California pollster Mervin Field. "His job ratings are very, very low. Even when Carter's doing well, they haven't warmed to him."

Almost in the same breath, however, Mr. Field adds, "You can't say that Reagan will definitely carry California [in November]." That may be a pollster's way of hedging his bets, but it also is an indication of the electorate's unusual unpredictability this year.

Ronald Reagan probably would not have had any trouble in next week's California Republican primary election, even if George Bush had pressed his cause. But that apparent solid wall of support may prove a bit facade-like come November. The state's archaic way of allotting Republican delegates (the only winner-take-all primary remaining in the country) is a reflection of Mr. Reagan's firm control on the relatively small state party organization.

Polls consistently show most Californians -- and indeed most Republicans here -- favoring a shift to proportional allocation of delegates. And while Mr. Reagan leads President Carter in most recent polls, a good bit of that support may be thin.

"I guess when it comes right down to it, I'll have to vote for Reagan," says Salina lettuce grower Albert Hansen, who runs one of the largest farming operations in California. "Carter's been kind of a nothing President, but I'm not really happy about Reagan either."

Harmony Nones of Klamath Falls, Ore., no doubt speaks for many others in the West who will vote for Mr. Reagan when she says, "I'm awfully tired of voting for the lesser of two evils."

The West is far from monolithic. Many San Franciscans would feel more at home in Boston than in Boise. Yet, there is a definite feeling across the region that -- especially during the four years of the Carter administration -- the hand of Washington has become intolerably heavy. The "sagebrush rebellion" is no joke out here.

On water policy, federal lands control and distribution, weapons of development and storage, and energy resources, wariness of Washington has grown into anger and frustration.

"I think, in general, the record of state-federal relations has been pretty dismal over the past several years," says Philip Burgess, University of Colorado political scientist and executive director of the Western Governors Policy Office (WESTPO) in Denver. The bipartisan organization, formed in 1977, represents 11 intermountain and high plains states.

Westerners were stunned when, right in the middle of a two-year drought, a newly elected President Carter tried to rip a few of their staves off the water-project pork barrel. He backed off some, after pressure from Congress and state officials. But the initial impression of a man who did not understand the region -- and perhaps was trying to punish it for lack of support in 1976 -- has stuck in many quarters.

The federal government owns 60 percent of all land west of the Rockies, compared with just 3 percent of the East. And increasingly, Uncle Sam is seen by many Westerners as an inefficient, if not tyrannical, landlord.