President Reagan still is riding tall in the eyes of both liberal and conservative Westerners; but a controversial lieutenant, Interior Secretary James G. Watt, appears to be significantly out of step with public opinion in the eight Rocky Mountain states.
While 56 percent of the public in the Mountain states gave the President favorable job ratings, 56 percent also had an unfavorable impression of Mr. Watt , recent surveys conducted by the Behavior Research Center (BRC) in Phoenix found. The disparity raises the possibility that Watt could become a major political liability here for the President in the future, says Earl de Berg, research director for the BRC.
Reagan's current popularity in the area -- his favorable ratings are 11/2 times greater than those of Jimmy Carter at the same point in his presidency -- appears to be closely tied to Westerners' economic expectations. In September, when this telephone survey with the adult heads of 1,150 households in the eight Rocky Mountain states was taken, 86 percent of those sampled expected the US economy to improve over the next six months.
Apparently it is concern over the environment that causes even many Western conservatives to downgrade Watt. Fewer than a third of the Westerners surveyed, including those who rate themselves as conservative, felt it is necessary to sacrifice environmental safeguards to have sufficient economic growth. In fact, 54 percent felt it was important to protect the environment, even if the result was to slow down the economy and cost some jobs, the survey found.
At the same time, 73 percent of those with an opinion felt Watt ''leaned toward'' economic development of resources rather than environmental protection, while only 10 percent felt he worked for both. The negative view on Watt is remarkably high and quite stable, says Mr. de Berg. Only in Utah and Wyoming do a plurality of the people rate him favorably.