In the promotional blurbs enticing newcomers to this rugged state of stunning mountain vistas, sparkling rivers and some of the most fertile land in the world, the seductive lure is a vision of the supposedly simpler, better life. Idaho is what American used to be, the ads say. If the presidential race turns out the way many here passionately hope, Idaho will be transformed into a symbol of what America becomes. Nowhere are the issues more clearly drawn, nowhere do you find a more profound sense of the larger stakes in this election.

The issue in Idaho is not whether Ronald Reagan will win here. He will, overwhelmingly. The issue is what a Reagan victory means to the West and the nation. Idaho represents the struggle between private development of natural resources and public supervision of U.S. lands, of a return to laissez-faire governmental policies and the role of Washington in the federal system, of the influence of the so-called "new right" in the 1980s and of the political swing now taking place in the country.

Here, as in other western states, the conflicts are sharp and the emotions high. Idaho debates the "sagebrush rebellion," a move to return vast stretches of federal lands to the states for probable development and quite possibly eventual private ownership . . . the scope of new mining operations such as the mammoth Cyprus Mines molybdenum project near Challis, the setting aside of 30,000 public acres for cobalt mining in the West Panther Creek area, the upsurge of dredge mining on state rivers and the proposed Smokey Canyon phosphate mine in the Caribou National Forest . . . the preservation of such wildlife and recreation terrain as the "birds of prey" area in the Snake River Canyon . . . the disposition of nuclear wastes and the needs of the nation to find new sources of energy for the future.

But most of all, in this campaign, Idaho debates the U.S. Senate race between the Democratic incumbent Frank Church and his Republican challenger Steve Symms.

The Chase-Symms contest is a classic battle, with special national significance in the politics of 1980. Along with other liberal Democratic senators, Church has been targeted for defeat by highly organized and well-financed conservative groups operating from outside Idaho. The techniques being employed here are the same as in other critical races -- expenditures of large sums of money, assaults on personal character and reputation, and dedicated grassroots work that carries the flavor of a religious crusade.

To an outsider, the remarks many people make sound extreme and strangely out of place in such a setting as this corner of the West. Here you have no hints of problems. Everything appears peaceful. The sights you see match the boasts of the travelogues: the air is pristine, as nearly everyone points out; the streams do glisten in the bright fall sunshine; the sunsets are as spectacular as they are supposed to be; the capital city nestled in the valley surrounded by mountains does look prosperous, and seem a model of cleanliness; the people strolling the streets do appear to glow with good health gained from the outdoors.

Yet their words often belie their manner: pause by a street corner, waiting for a traffic light to change, and you hear a citizen say casually to a sidewalk vendor that one way to solve the nation's problems is round up all the homosexuals and shoot them; stop by a store to repair a torn garment bag, and the proprietor, in the course of chance conversation, comments that "I personally think it doesn't make much difference who's president; get rid of these labor bastards is what I'm after."

A tone of starkness -- and sometimes a harshness -- runs through the [WORDS OMMITTED] of these westerners. They have strong opinions, and are not reluctant to express them. That goes for their politics too.

The other day Idaho citizens began receiving letters from out of state accusing Church of being "one of the most radical, liberal members of the U.S. Senate." Church, chairman of the influntial Foreign Relations committee, received a zero rating from the group mailing the letters, the Conservatives Against Liberal Legislation (CALL), because of his "anti-taxpayer, anti-defense, anti-family votes." Symms, a congressman, got a 100 percent rating and was praised for his "exceptional" and "distinguished" voting records.

That mass mailing came from an arm of another national political organization, the National Conservative Political Action Committee with headquarters in Northern Virginia, which already has spent some $200,000 in Idaho to defeat Church. In Idaho, with only 900,000 total population, that is a considerable sum. (The same group has spent even more to defeat George McGovern in South Dakota; there, in a state of 660,000, it has paid out $300,000 for ads that attack McGovern as a baby-killer, a close friend of Fidel Castro, and a leader of the liberal senators who gave away the Panama Canal to the communists.) At this point the polls show Church in a dead heat and McGovern losing. And Church's opponents are planning a major push between now and the election to defeat him. He faces not only strong organized opposition from outside Idaho, but from within. The Moral Majority

"I'm for anybody who's throwing the Rev. Buddy Hoffman, while seated in his immaculate living room where it's hard to imagine even a spot of dust intruding. "I'm very much a part of the Moral Majority."

Hoffman is a slim, pale young man of 27 who keeps his black hair cropped short and dresses in three-piece black pin-striped suits set off by somber tie and white shirt. He came here four years ago from Atlanta, by way of a Bible college in Hammond, Ind., and worked as an evangelical fundamentalist Baptist minister, part of the nationwide religious movement that calls itself, with grand immodesty, the Moral Majority. He didn't know a soul, he remarks, when he came to Idaho but after knocking on doors and passing out brochures and proselytizing the people, he's proud now to head a congregation, the Treasure Valley Baptist Church, that recently boasted of having the largest single-day attendance of any Baptist congregation in the state.

Converting the people comes naturally to Hoffman. As he says, "We've had preachers to every generation since the Civil War," most of them saving souls around Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, in Georgia. He and the Moral Majority are deeply involved in the effort to defeat Frank Church.

"If there's a time that Church's vulnerable, it's this year," Hoffman says. "Church represents the trouble we're in today. I see ourselves in very nearly a critical condition as far as making an impact on the nation because of the Church-Symms race. It'll show that we're serious. My grandfather's a preacher. I've got uncles that are preachers. None of them has ever been politically active, although I'm sure that long before that my great-grandfather was. He worked with Billy Sunday on prohibition. I see what we're doing in much of the same light.

"We've beginning to see the pendulum swing back. In the '60s it was a libertine sort of approach to sexuality, and even those who were advocating what they were terming sexual freedom now are recognizing that freedom brings responsibility. You can't separate sex and morality. Sex education has become nothing more than education on intercourse. If you can't pray you can't really exist in any kind of religious frame of reference. If they had allowed some moral teachings to remain within the public school system. I don't think there would have been as strong a resistence to sex education. But, you know, if some fellow comes up and says you're not going to pray in public schools and then in the next breath, says we're going to teach sex education, it doesn't set well."

To Hoffman abortion is "the prime issue facing America today, an issue that is permeating the majority of the moral-minded people's ideas." Church "has a very sad voting record on abortion . . . I think he represents that government intervention into our family, into our finances, into our future, into our everything."

The Church race is important to Hoffman no matter how it comes out. He speaks with assurance that his side will have won even if Church is reelected. "What happens if we lose?" he asks. "Nothing. If we lose the battle, we'll just take a little longer. And whether we win or lose, he's bound to become more sensitive to the fact that this was his hardest battle yet. This thing is going to be won or lost in the registration process, and the truth is it will probably be decided by what happens between now and November.

"We've drawn from some of the political savvy of individuals who have been in this sort of thing before. It doesn't take a lot of effort from one person; it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people. We've been working through the local pastors, encouraging their people to go out and register to vote -- and then go to the ballot boxes and put their two cents in. Nobody's telling anybody who to vote for; we're just defining issues. When they go in there they're going to pull for the person closest to those issues. We're certainly not as well-oiled as they are in some places. We don't have the numbers, but of course here you don't need those big numbers. When you're talking about numbers here they may seem small, but in Idaho they're big.

"You take 100 churches statewide. If 40 of them are actively involved and 40 of them register 50 people apiece -- new voters -- that's 2,000 people. That's maybe 1 percent of the people who are going to go to the polls, and that's what this Symms-Church thing probably will hinge on. Maybe even a half of a percentage point of the total voters."

A Reagan presidency figures in Hoffman's thinking this way:

"I think Reagan will oppose abortion, for one thing. And I think people will fear us a little more if he wins, just as people are a little bit afraid of what he might do when he gets in the White House. See, my own thinking is that Reagan is actually more liberal than we think he is. The man signed some liberal bills, you know, so I think he's probably more liberal than he lets on to us. And that's probably good because you've got to at least make people feel unsure about what you might do. You've got to make them a little afraid of you. If they aren't, they won't pay any attention to you. And I think there is an advantage in having an old man in there -- I think about old whats-his-name over there in Russia. The guy's an old man. He doesn't care what happens, you know. They know he's lived his life, and he's free to do what he really wants."

As for the role of religion in politics, Hoffman sees this year as marking a major change in voting behavior. "Traditionally people that are church-oriented people don't vote," he explained. "The more often a person goes to church, the less likely he is to vote. I think that's immoral. But now they've pushed us into a corner in many places in the country, and the worst thing you can do is push a coward in the corner. He'll kill you trying to get out. That's what they've done. They've pushed us and pushed us and pushed us in different areas. People are beginning to stir. We are reflecting what a great percentage of Idaho is.

"You know, the moral majority cause has taken a lot of flack from the press.

You tend to stay, 'Okay, I don't care what you think.' See the truth is there's nothing the press or the media or anyone else in the world can do to stop it. See, were not after any press I could care less. We're not after influence. We're after impact and if nobody ever knows we exist, it doesn't matter to me." The Activist

Start with an individual and I will show you a type, Scott Fitzgeraldd once said, and Dorian Duffin stands as an example of both. He's the kind of person you often meet throughout the country these days: young, serious, involved, and working in causes that the nation, or at least the press, tends to dismiss as remnants of the '60s, the last gasps of protestors past. He thinks of himself as nontraditional -- a bright student who dropped out of college here to shape a different life style for himself and the state in which he was born. There are many like him. He even looks like a type: long hair, mustache, T-shirt, jeans, the complete casual look, along with accompanying printed material that he stores in his cluttered ving livingroom/office before distributing it to get his message over to the public. l

Duffin's cause is the Snake River Alliance, one of those anti-nuclear environmental groups common in the West. A large nuclear military complex exists in eastern Idaho and the state also contains a major plant for processing fuel rods for the Navy's nuclear submarine fleet. Since Three Mile Island, questions over the safety of the nuclear operations as well as how to dispose of the nuclear wastes, have assumed greater importance. But Duffin's concerns go beyond the nuclear issues.

"Idaho is a very conservative state, and I am too," he says. "I want to guarantee my freedom and I demand that guarantee to act on certain things that threaten my freedom, such as the nukes. They have lied to us, they will continue to lie, and they will rob me of certain rights. And I am conservative enough to say that's wrong. We're not asking for unrealistic radical policies to be granted, because we feel that's just as wrong as the ultra-conservatives.

"We have the new right spawning in Idaho. It's getting stronger. The John Birchers are very strong, but the new right is overwhelming them now. The Morman Church and its influence and background and the farmer-rancher types are all real conservatives. Ideally church and state should be separated; here they go hand in hand. Now the new right is beaming a lot of information heavily into Idaho.They're pumping the people full of this new right stuff. It's really scary. I feel I'm being overpowered by all this rightist propaganda, all these people backed by big bucks.

"They're propagandizing the people through the churches and other institutions. They're capitalizing on the idea the nation is weak. Once they purge the government and take the wraps off the energy and mining companies, they'll have their way. It's an opportune time to scare people and cash in. I have a belief the nation is moving toward Reagan. I'm deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. I don't think he's capable. He's doing a whitewash campaign trying to convince people with symbols. President Carter's ineffective. Most people know that and believe that. I'm going to vote for Anderson to show that the state is not all Reagan. It will be a protest." The Developer

Vernon Ravenscroft likes to say his family broke sagebrush in the Twin Falls country of Idaho in 1910. "So when you talk about land development, we've got a history of it," he remarks. "I haven't hesitated to take the holiest of crusades and do what I could with them. This is one of them." He is speaking about the "sagebrush rebellion," of which he is a leading member in the state.

Ravenscroft could play the part of the rugged westerner in any Hollywood horse drama: craggy features, wavy hair, deep voice, his flannel shirt open without tie, his gaze direct, his manner definitely that of an outdoorsman. he He started in fact, as a forester. Even seated behind his desk, in an office overlooking downtown Boise and the distant mountains, he retains the look of someone about to head out into the country. Over the years he's moved from conservative Democrat to Republican: for 12 years he was a member of the state legislature, then GOP state chairman and two years ago an unsuccessful candidate for governor. He's now in the consulting business and one of his major concerns is the sagebrush rebelion. The issue affects the entire West. m

Idaho's land area totals some 54 million acres, of which about 60 percent are publicly owned by all American citizens. The land is managed by the federal government. The sagebrush rebellion, a movement that started in Nevada, and has spread to the other western states, seeks to end that federal ownership by turning back significant portions of the land to the states. Other states own most of their land, so why shouldn't we be able to do what we want with land that lies within our borders, the argument goes. In the present anti-Washington climate so prevalent in the West, the sagebush rebellion idea has generated strong impetus. It gains even greater force because of the energy situation. In this time of energy shortages, the nation needs to develop its own resources. The western lands are a prime resource for the nation. Opponents bitterly say all this talk is just a smokescreen for a ripoff and land-grab of historic proportions, the final opportunity for the big oil and mining companies to exploit state after state.

Ravenscroft says that's nonsense. "If lands are transferred to the state, the vast majority will remain in public ownership, under public management," he maintains. "The legal question that is posed is that of equal footing at the time of admission to statehood. Who really owned these lands? Why is it that Nevada got less than 4 percent of its land mass as a federal land grant when they were admitted to statehood, and in varying ways Florida picked up 67 percent? It's obviously unfair."

He sees the struggle in terms of western traditions and the desire to develop what is yours. "Westerners are still near enough to the pioneer days that we've got a lot of rugged individuals that want to take care of themselves. They think the function of government is more physical -- that is, from the standpoint of protection and national defense -- than in the economic and social welfare fields. They want to help people help themselves, not domesticate 'em. So, yes, we are far more conservative as far as this opportunity for economic development goes.

"Ronald Reagan will take this state very heavily, based on our attitudes that Reagan exemplifies policies and attitudes that we associate with. In turn, Carter is seen as an ineffective moderate. We need to develop new energy sources, coal and hydroelectric. For a while environmentalists had our power companies and utilities so deadly scared they wouldn't talk about hydroelectric development, but that has changed. They're talking about numbers of new ones now.

"As far as what we expect to see in a Reagan presidency, I think first of all Reagan is intelligent enough to recognize that the things which are unacceptable in the federal system were accomplished over nearly 50 years. You're not going to turn them around overnight, but you're going to have to change their direction and make corrections. . . Second, we expect to see a good many changes in key offices and in policy-making areas of the Agriculture and Interior Department departments. We'd like to see -- and expect to see -- adminstrators in there who are dramatically different from those there now." The Conservationist

"I guess I am known as an activist on conservation issues," says Ken Robison, a quiet-spoken Idaho native who has been an editorial writer for the Boise paper, the Idaho Statesman, and now serves in the state legislature. He also publishes his own monthly paper devoted to conservation and wilderness issues, titled The Idaho Citizen.

Robison is another who has the look of the West. He wears a short-sleeve shirt, no tie, sun glasses and qualifies as an earnest Roger Staubach good guy kind of fellow. We talked against the backdrop of the mountain range. He believes that if the public lands are turned back to the states the basic framework of Idaho will change. "Under existing laws we're assured that the land is going to remain under public ownership," he says, "available for public use, for recreation, hunting, fishing and so on. It it's transferred to the state the possibility exists of large parts of it being sold off or given away. And certainly if it's transferred to the state, outside economic interests will come in here with lots of money and our politics will change. In a small state like Idaho a relatively small amount of money goes a long way in electing legislators.

"This election is going to be very instrumental in determining where we go on these issues. I'm quite concerned about Frank Church. If we lose Church we will have no one in our congressional delegation who is a friend of Idahoans on these kinds of issues. Symms is for all-out development and forget about the consequences. I'm fearful about the wildlife natural area, and fearful about what will happen in the future. I'm concerned about the sagebrush rebellion. It's a terrific threat to the people of the West. If we get more people like Symms in Congress and a president who might support this kind of thing -- and it is reported that Reagan specifically has endorsed the concept of the sagebrush rebellion -- we are going to experience a fundamental change.

"I'm really spooked when Reagan says all we have to do to solve our energy problems is take off the restraints of energy development. That's the line pushed by some of the energy companies -- remove the environmental restraints in effect in the West in relationship to our land and our water and our wildlife. I think the people of the West generally will support energy development, but not at the price of our way of life out here. And there's no prospect of a tremendous increase in our energy here. It's an unrealistic, simplistic approach. I've seen things put out by some of the development adovcates saying 70 percent of the public lands of the West are off-limits to energy development. That's absolute nonsense. It's a mythology, it's a line they're feeding the people -- roll back the federal regulations and we'll have a lot of energy. That's a real public disservice." The Future

Exactly why the West hates Washington remains somewhat mystifying, despite the almost universal expression of dislike for the way the federal government operates back East. In many respects, no section of the country owes more to the federal government for its development. Without federal assistance in homesteading, military protection, dams and irrigation projects, the West would not have been transformed into the prosperous region it is today. It was the federal government also -- often with accompanying great corruption -- that gave away some of the richest public land to private development. Today, you can meet people who will rail against Washington in the strongest terms; on closer examination some of them turn out to have made their great personal fortunes by doing lucrative business with the federal government.

These contraditions certainly are not new. Follow the river north of Boise through the deep canyon wall, and you come to two signs within a few hundred yards of each other that testify to this conflict within the western character. One is a marker noting where the pioneers on the Oregon Trail first crossed the river into this valley almost 150 years ago. You can still see clearly where their wagon wheels cut a permanent path into the rimrock over the river banks.

Not much farther along is another marker. This one stands by a dam on the Boise River built by the U.S. government in 1908 to irrigate this now fertile valley for the ranchers and farmers who lived there then. All who have resided here since continue to prosper because of that project. The sign says, with a touch of pride, that the dam and the canals through which the water is channeled have remained almost exactly the same since they first went into operation nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

Nor is the West, no matter how extreme some of the comments within it sound today, only a bastion of reactionary sentiment. It has had a long tradition of being quite liberal -- perhaps progressive is the better word -- in many of its public laws and local policies as well as esposing a flinty kind of conservatism. Yet this election puts these old strains and conflicts into sharp new perspective. Much more is at stake in this political battleground than who will be the next president of the United States. It is not too much to suggest that it's the nature of the West itself that is being decided by the voters here.