After meeting with top presidential aides here today, Nevada Gov. Robert List said his state would accept "a minimal number" of land-based MX missiles "if it was absolutely essential to the national defense."
The Republican governor's comments provided the clearest public indication so far that President Reagan may be moving toward deploying 100 MX missiles among 1,000 protective shelters in Nevada in a scaled-down version of a "shell game" favored by the Air Force.
In Washington, senior administration officials, however, including Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., continued to stress that the president has not made a final decision on the controversial basing plan.
Reagan made clear Thursday night at a fund-raising party in California that, while he still did not know where to put the MX, his administration would add the big, multiple-warhead missile to the U.S. arsenal.
The idea of shuttling 100 missiles among 1,000 shelters to keep Soviet missile targeteers guessing and thus provide some protection for MX against an attack was among the leading options said to be presented earlier this week to the president by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
Senior Air Force officers say that under this plan, the main MX operating base would be in Coyote Springs, Nev., in the northern part of Clark County, with the missiles and shelters just north in Lincoln County.
Lincoln has fewer inhabitants than any county in the state and also contains portions of the huge Nellis Air Force Base, where some of the shelters might be built.
The original plan for MX, developed in the Carter administration, involved 200 missiles and 4,600 shelters spread through Utah and Nevada. But opposition from the Utah-based Mormon church may have played a role in getting that state out of the MX plan.
Officials say they know of no visits to the western presidential headquarters being planned by other governors.
On occasion List has strongly protested the draining effect the MX would have on water, land and public services in Utah and Nevada.
His quick visit here may have been designed to influence the last stages of the president's decision-making process in terms of getting the best possible compromise or assistance for his state.
Deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes said he understood that List had requested today's meeting with presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. White House chief of staff James A. Baker III also was present.
But List's press secretary, Greg Lambert, said in a telephone interview that while the governor had been having a say with the administration over a period of time about how Nevada feels about MX, about a week ago the president extended an invitation to List to come out and meet with Meese.
After the meeting here, List told reporters that "if the president decided after all was said and done . . . it was absolutely essential to the national defense that we take a minimal number" of MX missiles "and they be put on military areas, then we could swallow it."
His indication that Nevada would go along if the defense consideration were essential is similar to statements by Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), a close friend of the president, who also has opposed the MX shelter plan for Utah and Nevada.
At a press conference in June, Laxalt made clear that he was not prepared at that time to oppose the president if he ultimately decided the MX must be based in the West. "Whatever decision he comes to is going to be highly persuasive with this senator," Laxalt said then.
Asked what military areas he meant, List said Nevada has 4 million acres set aside for military use and mentioned the Nevada test site, where nuclear testing is done, and Nellis.
List said that "based on what I know," various plans for constructing thousands of missile shelters or silos in Nevada "can be scaled way down." He said he understood from his meetings, however, that the president had not yet decided what kind of MX system he wanted.
List said he wanted to make sure "Nevada not be placed on the sacrificial altar if it is not necessary, and we don't think it is."
He noted at least three different land-based systems proposed to allow 100 to 200 missiles to hide or shift among several hundred shelters in order to frustrate a Soviet first strike.
But he said any of them would mean "thousands and thousands of workers coming into the state who have got to get their kids to school, whose cars will be on the highways."
He acknowledged that what he called "a minority in the business community" in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, had supported construction of an MX system in the area. List said their attitude was "we would like some of these bucks."
But most Nevadans, the governor said, think the huge construction project would create a labor shortage and bring in higher salaries and more demand for goods, which would lead to high inflation. "How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen MX?" List asked.
"We're concerned about the impact on our resources, the water, the land itself," List said. He said some of the towns in the area that might be affected "have fewer than 500 or 600 people, half of them living in trailers."
On the same day List was here, however, the White House also announced it had submitted a final report to Congress about situations in which federal assistance can be given to communities that undergo a sudden population influx or suffer other demands because of major new military base or construction projects.
A Nevada congressional aide said yesterday that a reduced proposal for the MX is better than the original 4,600-shelter plan and estimated that while environmentalists will oppose even the scaled-down version, they probably will not be decisive, and the system will be tolerated in the state, especially if some economic benefits can be shown.