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.
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.
"The political history of the West is one of federal domination," asserts Alaska Lt. Gov. Terry Miller. "The economic history is one of successive resource raids, of boom and bust."
The farm strike of two years ago, others point out, started not in the Midwestern 'heartland," but in Colorado.
The US Forest Service's "roadless area review," the Bureau of Land Management's tightened control over nearly 1 billion acres in the West, and the preserving of millions of acres as wilderness in Alaska may please environmentalists. But for loggers, miners, and ranchers, the federal leash is becoming intolerably taut.
"The public is getting ripped off," says Lowell Jones, an independent Oregon Timberman who knows Douglas firs and logging roads as well as anyone in the state. "We've got too much government now."
Mr. Jones went to Kansas City as an alternative Reagan delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention. And he intends to vote for Mr. Reagan again this year.
Energy-producing states are particularly wary of federal moves to establish an energy mobilization board (EMB), to rapidly develop synthetic fuels, and to otherwise prod the West to help out more in achieving energy independence.
Mr. Burgess calls the Carter administration's proposed EMB "an assault on 200 years of constitutional history. . . . The federal government is using a new bureacracy to solve problems caused by the old federal bureaucracies."
Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler worries whether his state, with extensive oil and coal reserves, will become the "energy breadbasket of the nation, or the energy colony."
Back in California, state officials are preparing to sue the federal government if the latter refuses to delay the sale of offshore oil leases covering most of the state's 1,100-mile coast. Citing environmental concerns -- including earthquakes and federal acknowledgement that there will be at least some oil spills over the 20-year life of the project -- California wants more control over its outer continental shelf.
This state, which is the nation's most productive agriculturally, also is faced with possible disruption of the large farm corporations that account for much of its output.
Federal officials, led by Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, want to enforce water-reclamation laws more strictly and thereby break up many large agribusinesses.
California and the Pacific Northwest both are hard-hit by President Carter's tight-money policies, which especially affect housing. Hundreds of plywood and lumber mills in Washington and Oregon have shut down or drastically cut back their operations.
California, which continues to grow while some Eastern states level off or lose population, has a strong -- but largely frustrated -- demand for new housing as well as the money to finance it.
"I think the President will probably have a hard time out here," says former Oregon governor Tom McCall. "He has caused a great upsurge of resentment by using housing as the lever to fight inflation."
Whether these strained relations between Washington and the West redound to the advantage of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, or Rep. John Anderson (R) of Illinois remains unclear.
California Democratic Party chairman Richard O'Neill was among 10 state chairmen who recently asked Senaro Kennedy to abandon his race for the presidency in the name of party unity.
The West has a long history of outside-the-mold -- if not maverick -- politicians, including the likes of Mr. McCall, the late Wayne Morse, Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Ronald Reagan, among others. Party loyalties are not nearly as strong here as in the East. Even the hard-core Reagan following is more one of man than of party.
Just a few days later, however, the Los Angeles Times published the results of a poll showing President Carter just 5 percentage points ahead of the Massachusetts Democrat in a mock primary.
"The whole thing that makes the election difficult to predict is the Anderson factor," says Stanford University political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset. "He'll probably do better in California than in most other states."
Mr. Anderson should have little trouble gathering the 101,296 signatures necessary to place his name on the November ballot in california. Having done that, he probably would cut heavily into Carter support in the state, according to the recent Times poll.
Without Mr. Anderson on the ballot, the newspaper found that Mr. Reagan leads President Carter by just 47 percent to 43, with 10 percent undecided. With the Illinois congressman on the ballot as an independent, however, the figures shift significantly: Reagan 40% Carter 28% Anderson 27% Undecided 5%
Asked by pollster Louis Harris who they would vote for if "the polls showed that [John Anderson] had a real chance of winning the presidential election in November," voters in the West gave the Illinois congressman strong support -- 34 percent of the vote, far ahead of President Carter's 22 percent and not far behind Mr. Reagan, who garnered 38 percent of the sample.
In the West, at least, Mr. Anderson thus may be approaching the solid 30 -percent support factor he feels necessary to make him a creditable candidate as the election draws nearer.
"I know nothing about that man, but I'm beginning to be curios," says Portland, Ore., attorney Ruth cinniger. A registered Democrat with friends among the party's activists in Portland, she reports "strong hints from certain important people in those circles that they're down on Carter, they certainly aren't going to vote for Reagan, and they just might be drawn to Anderson.
"I don't think Carter's incompetent. But it takes more than a well-intentioned, intelligent human being to be President of this country," she says. "Frankly, I'd probably vote for Ford if he was running."
As for Senator Kennedy, he is pushing hard in California to keep alive the possiblity of a challenge at the Democratic National Convention in New York. Notwithstanding President Carter's apparent low esteem here, however, there is some doubt whether the senator's liberal record will play well among Californians.
Observers note that Mr. Reagan and Governor Brown, while poles apart on other issues, have both espoused a brand of fiscal conservatism and government leanness that Senator Kennedy opposes. In the state that launched Proposition 13 and its latter-day kin, Mr. Reagan and Govornor Brown have been top vote-getters.
"There's a greater distrust in government and a greater unwillingess to pay high taxes," notes Professor Lipset. Neither of these viewpoints does the voter typically associate with Mr. Kennedy.
Senator Kennedy does have the assured support of California's large Hispanic population in the June 3 primary. He has been endorsed by Cezar Chavez's United Farm Workers as well as the Mexican-American Political Association (MAPA).
But even this may reflect more of a dissatisfaction with President Carter, even though the Kennedys have been extremely popular in the Chicano community for two decades.
"With the US Hispanic population soon to become the dominant minority in this country, it's time for a major Hispanic political appointment," said MAPA president Eduardo Sandoval. "Carter promised this, but never delivered."
"If it's Carter vs. Reagan," adds Mr. Sandoval, "I think President Carter will be surprised to see a sizable portion of the Hispanic vote going to Mr. Reagan."
In this particularly volatile year, in this particularly unpredictable part of the country, Ronald Reagan thus may find himself attracting yet one more segment of the electorate that traditionally votes Democratic. Or he may not.
As veteran election-watcher Richard Scammon says of Western political proclivities, "Anything can happen in five months . . . and usually does."