Not so many weeks ago, Interior Secretary James G. Watt was everywhere.

His face graced newspaper front pages, magazine covers, television screens and comic strips. Even when the publicity was negative, he appeared to thrive on it--sparring verbally with environmentalists, announcing controversial initiatives in public forums, lunging into testy debates with hostile House committees.

In March, when Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio) apologized to Watt for an especially virulent roasting by his House Interior panel, the secretary beamed toward a line of television cameras and said: "I love it."

But these days Watt appears to be loving it less, sidestepping combat whenever possible, confining his public appearances to friendly conservative forums and ducking most national press coverage.

He canceled a string of speeches in California in May, following White House warnings that his presence could hurt Republican candidates' prospects.

He has turned aside repeated invitations to testify before Democratic-dominated House Interior panels since the March showdown, while accepting requests from Senate committees where Republicans are in the saddle.

And his aides are now trying to curb news coverage, sharply restricting reporters' access to Interior staffers and issuing a raft of "no comments" and denials.

Watt's press secretary and close friend, Douglas Baldwin, denied that his boss had lowered his profile, although Watt recently told a closed meeting of about 40 House Republican staffers that he was deliberately doing so until after the November elections, according to several who attended.

The shift began, several Interior officials said, after White House polls showed Watt with the lowest approval rating of any Cabinet officer other than Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who recently underwent a lengthy probe for alleged mob connections.

"We were told the polls are bad and we better keep our g.d. heads down," one Interior official said.

But the impetus came from Watt, with no prodding from President Reagan or his aides, said White House political director Edward Rollins. "President Reagan feels very comfortable with Jim Watt," Rollins said. "No Cabinet member is out there preaching the Reagan doctrine like Jim, and the president likes loyalty."

Still, several officials said, Watt had good reason to make changes. His negative image was hindering his effectiveness, subjecting his every move to intense scrutiny. ("If Jim Watt came out for motherhood, the environmentalists would start looking for loopholes," one official said.)

Pointing to the California cancellations, they added that it threatened his standing as the cabinet's top political fund-raiser--a distinction he relishes.

While Watt is now ducking hostile forums and the press, he remains a valued traveling salesman for Reagan in conservative states on the Republican Party fund-raising circuit where he continues to draw big crowds and big bucks.

He is also as active as ever behind the scenes, recently joining a closed session with House and Senate Republicans seeking to alter a bipartisan wilderness protection measure.

So far, the strategy appears to be working.

Administration officials said Watt's ratings in the polls have improved in the past several weeks (from about 50 percent favorable to 61 percent), although he remains near the bottom of the Cabinet in popularity.

Many environmentalists are turning edgy: "At least before, we knew what he was up to," lamented one lobbyist. The National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society recently sent out alerts, instructing members to be on the lookout for Watt in case he visits their towns and to notify the Washington offices immediately--almost like sightings issued for rare birds.

House Democrats, who have had little access to Interior insiders since Watt took office, have complained that they now have even less. Rep. Jim D. Santini (D-Nev.), a conservative friendlier toward Watt than his fellow Democrats on the House Interior panel, has gotten a cold shoulder in efforts to schedule Watt for testimony before his mining subcommittee.

"Schedule conflicts," is the answer Santini's staffers said they keep getting, although Watt recently found time to testify on the subject before the Senate Energy panel.

There Watt underwent little questioning and was congratulated by committee Chairman James A. McClure (R-Idaho) for his role in shaping the minerals policy.

Baldwin said Watt's new low-profile reflects success.

"Most of what we sought to accomplish here in terms of changing the agency has already been accomplished," he said. Now, Interior is simply implementing those changes, Baldwin said--accelerating offshore oil development; opening more public lands to mineral, oil and gas exploration; turning strip mining regulation from Washington back to the coal states and more--a phase that is "inherently less controversial than putting change in motion."

As for Watt's abrupt cancellation of the California appearances: "Schedule conflicts," Baldwin explained.

High administration officials said, however, that Watt was asked to stay out of California until after the primary because of an outcry over his offshore drilling policies--a major target of Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown's campaign for the Senate.

Republican strategists said they worried that a Watt visit in the heat of the primary would arouse anti-party passions in coastal areas and hurt the campaigns of Republicans such as Rep. Don H. Clausen of northern California in November.

While the hibernation was intended to curb controversies and bad press, it has in some cases brought Watt more of both. In one instance, Rep. Eugene A. Chappie (R-Calif.) had expected to raise about $50,000 at a May 26 fund-raiser that Watt was to host when the secretary abruptly canceled, campaign manager Dick Colby said. Chappie, a conservative from the state's northernmost district had expected to pack the $150-a-head event with oil, gas and timber executives who warm to Watt's pro-development policies, Colby said.

The campaign to curb bad press backfired this week in Sacramento. There, an official of the Bureau of Reclamation warned employes that they might be fired if they were quoted in news reports viewed as "bad stories"--those critical of Watt or Interior. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) learned of the warning and denounced it as "outrageous" and "an obvious attempt to stem the free flow of political considerations"--an attack that received front-page coverage in California.

Sacramento public information officer Jerry King confirmed that he told employes to refuse press interviews in general and ordered them to refer any queries from The Washington Post in particular to the public affairs office in Washington rather than Sacramento.

"I wanted to get across to them what in my judgment is the political situation and the potential for any one of them to get into serious problems," King said. The general ban was his own idea, but the special ban on contacts with The Post was issued from Washington, King said.

"The administration and the Interior Department are having a war of words with The Post," King said. "I don't think that's a secret to any enlightened person." Baldwin said he knew nothing of King's general directive and denied that Interior was at "war" with The Post. "We don't fight wars with anybody," said Baldwin. For details of King's warning, see The Federal Report, Page A17

Republicans close to Watt said his drastic change in style provides insight into his personality. He is above all a true soldier for the president, they said, and whatever he does, he does with zeal.

These Republican officials contend that the figure labeled "the most hated man in America" by Democratic pollsters, in fact just wants to be liked. But he also relishes combat, they said, and does not want to get rusty. "We consider it a wasted day if he doesn't draw a demonstration by some environmental group," Baldwin said in April, before the change in his boss' style.

When Watt hosted a fund-raiser for Rep. Wendell Bailey in Missouri last week, no demonstrators turned up--a development noted by the secretary. "I'm almost afraid I've lost my touch," he quipped.

ABritish archeologist was freed from an Afghan jail and allowed to fly to India after having been sentenced last month to 10 years in prison on charges of smuggling ancient relics to London and helping Afghans to leave the country.

Ralph Pinder-Wilson, 63, had pleaded guilty to the charges at his June 24 revolutionary court trial in the Afghan capital of Kabul. He refused to say on his arrival here whether the guilty plea was made honestly or done to make it easier for Afghan authorities to set him free. The frail director of the British Institute for Afghan Studies was one of the few Western non-diplomats to remain in the country aafter the Soviet incursion in 1979.