Why are Idaho's Democrats smiling?

After all, like its neighboring states here in hard-core Reagan country, Idaho has been trending Republican -- in party preference and voting patterns -- for a decade. In the last election, Idahoans gave Ronald Reagan a whopping 72 percent of their votes and sent overwhelming Republican majorities to both houses of the state legislature.

Democrats were able to win one seat in the congressional delegation in 1984, but only because the incumbent Republican congressman, George Hansen, sought reelection after being sentenced to jail on a felony conviction. Even then, Hansen's Democratic challenger, Richard Stallings, took just 50.01 percent of the vote.

These days, however, Democrats from Pocatello to Priest River are bubbling with enthusiasm and looking forward with happy anticipation to November's elections. They say that Idaho in '86 will be what Virginia was last fall: an object lesson in how Democrats can win big in a conservative state.

Democratic leaders here say they have a strong chance to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Symms, to put another Democrat in the governor's office, to pick up the lieutenant governorship, to hold Stallings' House seat, and to win back a few of the legislative seats the Republicans captured in 1984.

The chief reason for all this optimism is that Democrat leaders here -- unlike their counterparts in some other states -- have signed up the party's strongest possible candidates for the two leading statewide races, governor and U.S. senator.

Challenging Symms for the Senate seat will be Gov. John V. Evans, an earnest, likable moderate Democrat who has won two straight gubernatorial terms and demonstrated an appeal to all elements of Idaho's multifaceted populace.

The party's gubernatorial candidate, meanwhile, will be the only Idaho Democrat more popular than Evans: former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who returned here in 1981 after after four years as secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter.

A Peter Hart poll commissioned by the Democrats last fall showed Andrus with a 20-point lead over Lt. Gov. David H. LeRoy, the GOP candidate for governor here this year.

Things are looking so rosy for the Democrats right now that Republican leaders, despite their dominance in the 1984 elections, openly portray themselves as the underdogs.

"Did you see 'Rocky IV'?" asks David Pearson, executive director of the state GOP. "Well, we're Rocky and the Democrats are that big Russian."

Pearson acknowledges the strong Democratic slate, but he is predicting a Republican sweep this year. He points out that the number of Idahoans who consider themselves Republicans is much larger than the number of self-proclaimed Democrats.

He says that President Reagan's immense popularity here will carry over to local Republican candidates. "We had the president here last fall, and George Bush is coming this winter," Pearson notes. "And if it looks like Steve [Symms] is in trouble next summer, I'm sure Reagan will be back."

A pair of polls taken last fall showed Symms, seeking his second Senate term, running just about even with Evans. But the Democrats think they can wound Symms badly with a hard-hitting campaign.

Symms is one of those spunky, irrepressible politicians about whom nobody is indifferent. Many Idahoans love his outspoken conservatism, but many others have been seriously offended by some of his off-the-cuff rhetorical flights -- such as the time last fall when he joined the Rev. Jerry Falwell in mocking South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu.

The basic Democratic strategy in the Senate race is to dust off and replay a collection of fiery Symms quotations and thus portray the senator as a man of loud talk and little achievement. The Democrats want to emphasize the basic character distinction between the quiet, widely popular Evans and the flamboyant, sometimes polarizing Symms.

Symms is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and is consequently expected to run rings around his challenger in fund-raising.

But this advantage is somewhat muted in Idaho, a thoroughly rural state where media markets such as Boise, Twin Falls, and Pocatello offer advertising time at bargain-basement prices.

The race for governor looks like a romp for the Democrats at this early stage. Andrus, who served two terms as governor before joining Carter's Cabinet, enjoys far greater name recognition than LeRoy, the conservative Republican seeking to move up from the lieutenant governorship.

When Andrus returned here in 1981 to start a consulting business, there was some thought that the association with Carter might taint any political plans. So far, at least, there's no indication that the voters have soured on Andrus because of his four years in the Carter administration.

Andrus' big problem could be the lingering suspicion that he is an "environmentalist" -- not a desirable label in a state where timber, mining, and agriculture are still the major industries. But early polls suggest that environmental issues will not seriously hinder his campaign to return to the statehouse.

The race for the House seat representing the eastern half of the state is likely to be extremely close -- although perhaps not quite as close as in 1984, when Stallings won his battle against Hansen by 133 votes out of 200,000 cast.

Stallings, a conservative Democrat with a studious mien that reflects his career as a professor of Mormon history, has been running for a second term pretty much nonstop. Still, a long list of Republicans want to challenge him.

The GOP approach will be to portray Stallings as a liberal. One of the candidates for the GOP nomination, state Rep. J.F. Chadband, for example, is already distributing fliers that show Stallings standing near Jane Fonda at a Capitol Hill hearing.

There has been endless speculation that Hansen's wife, Connie, might seek the GOP nomination against Stallings this year. If she ran, she would likely prevail in the Republican primary, because the "Hansen Hard Corps" -- the bloc of Republican voters who support Hansen no matter what -- is still a formidable force in Republican politics in eastern Idaho.

Regardless of who his opponent will be, however, Stallings has the advantage of the single most potent force in modern House elections: incumbency. With that enormous asset, Stallings and his fellow Democrats here think that he can hold the seat -- even in staunchly conservative eastern Idaho.

The state's other congressman, Republican Larry Craig, seems likely at this point to win reelection with ease.