Interior Secretary William P. Clark's decision to resign caught even top White House aides by surprise, but the names of possible successors surfaced quickly, chief among them Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.).

Reps. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.) also are likely to be in the running.

Except for Laxalt, all were considered for the post after then-Secretary James G. Watt's resignation in late 1983. Each is highly regarded in the Republican Party's conservative wing, and each could be expected to be comfortable with an administration policy that emphasizes resource development and budgetary austerity.

Moreover, all are "God-fearing westerners," the term President Reagan applied to Clark when he chose him to head the Interior Department. That credential is a virtual requirement for an office that has broad authority over millions of acres of western lands.

But the nomination of either Hodel or Laxalt could draw strong opposition from critics of the administration's natural resources policies, who are likely to measure the qualifications of any interior candidate by the intensity of his or her support for the controversial Watt.

Hodel, a former head of the Bonneville Power Administration who served as undersecretary to Watt, has been given generally good reviews for his handling of the Energy Department, which he took over in late 1982 after the departure of former South Carolina governor James B. Edwards.

Hodel's nomination to that post ran into heated opposition from conservationists, however. The complaints stemmed partly from Hodel's references to environmentalists as "no-growth extremists," a term that echoed Watt's beliefs, and partly from his record as the day-to-day manager at the Interior Department, where he kept a low profile while loyally translating his outspoken boss's philosophy into policy.

Reagan historically has filled high-level vacancies in consultation with the person who is leaving, a practice that could give Hodel an edge. Clark has worked closely with Hodel in the past 16 months, and is is known to be favorably impressed with him.

Laxalt, who is considering retiring from the Senate at the end of his term in 1986, is a close friend of President Reagan and served as national chairman of the 1984 Reagan-Bush reelection campaign. Laxalt also was instrumental in bringing Watt to Washington, after his and Reagan's first choice, former senator Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyo.), turned down the job.

When political pressure for Watt's resignation mounted after he characterized an advisory panel in ethnic terms, Laxalt came to Watt's defense, urging his Senate colleagues to give the voluble secretary more time to make up his mind.

But either man could be expected to maintain the nonconfrontational style that Clark took to the Interior Department, while maintaining the pro-development policies that have made it the center of heated congressional battles.

In his first three months on the job, Clark lifted Watt's moratorium on buying federal park land, scaled back an ambitious oil-leasing program in deference to state concerns, and replaced several of Watt's more combative deputies.

"I must say, Mr. Secretary, you put out fires very quickly," Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), one of Watt's most outspoken critics, told Clark last March after the newly confirmed secretary announced he had put all coal leasing on hold and had requested an investigation of the program.

Environmentalists remained skeptical of what one called "public relations window dressing" at interior, but Clark's open manner quickly won approval on Capitol Hill.

"It's great to be dealing with someone who has common sense and fairness and judgment and we really appreciate it," Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) told reporters last spring after emerging from a three-hour meeting with the secretary.

While the departure of Clark is not expected to signal a sea change in policy, the nominations of Hodel or Laxalt could presage a new approach to federal water projects.

Both are considered strong defenders of federally financed irrigation and flood-control projects. Laxalt played a key role last year in reversing the White House's tough stand against subsidies for beneficiaries of the costly projects, complaining that the policy would damage western Republicans in the fall elections.

Moving Hodel to the Interior Department post also would leave the White House with a free hand at the Energy Department, which Reagan vowed in 1980 to abolish.

The administration has not abandoned that goal, but Hodel has made it clear he was not interested in working himself out of a job.

As energy secretary, Hodel has pursued much the same course that Clark has pursued as interior secretary, opening his office door to the department's critics

Within an hour of moving into his new Cabinet office, Hodel summoned reporters to announce that dismantling the department would not be one of his priorities, and to hint that energy conservation programs might be in for better times.