As Washington sees it, President Reagan and Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona are in direct, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over whether or not Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William J. Casey should be ousted -- and now Mr. Goldwater may have blinked.
Whether Goldwater has actually backed down is not certain. But instead of reinforcing his assertion that he thinks Mr. Casey should resign, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee merely noted, when most recently questioned by reporters, that the President was still supporting Casey.
So the growing view here among veteran observers is that Goldwater is finding the considerable clout of this President, together with Casey's resolute defense , more than he wants to contend with.
The tide now apparently flowing in the direction of the CIA chief -- who has been under fire for alleged bad judgment in making Max Hugel his chief spymaster and for alleged improprieties in business dealing during the 1970s -- contains these elements:
* An increasing hardening in the President's backing is now surfacing, following the completion of a full check into Casey's alleged financial problems.
All along Mr. Reagan has firmly asserted that Casey's hiring of Mr. Hugel, who stepped down from his job when his own previous business dealings came under question, would not be enough for him to ask Casey to leave the CIA.
But now, reassured by the check into Casey's past activities, Reagan is pictured as having become unshakably firm in his decision to keep his friend and campaign adviser, Casey, on the job.
* The word has been passed the Goldwater that the President is not about to lose Casey -- and some valuable political face along with it -- without a stiff battle.
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, another good friend of the President, reminded reporters the other day in a press conference in which he threw his support behind Casey, of the particularly close Reagan-Casey personal and political relationship. He said it was even possible that without Casey's valuable counsel Reagan might have lost the election.
Also, when asked whether he felt that Goldwater could be overcome in his effort to oust Casey, Mr. Laxalt said he didn't think the veteran senator's clout was such that he could shape the committee verdict.
Up to that point (last weekend) the Senate power flow had been with Goldwater. Two other senators on the committee had echoed Goldwater's call for Casey to leave.
But with the new world being passed -- partly by Laxalt, partly by the White House, and partly by Senate majority leader Howard Baker of Tennessee -- that Reagan appeared ready to go all-out in behalf of Casey, the tide began to change.
Sen. Richard J. Lugar (R)of Indiana, after a committee executive session, said the briefing "as far as I'm concerned, laid to rest all of the previous questions about Mr. Casey's business deals."
And Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, also a committee member, now says: "I have yet to hear or see any credible evidence that would lead me to believe Mr. Casey should resign."