Idaho has gained a deserved reputation as a bastion of rock-ribbed conservatism, taking pride in its traditional family values.

But it also is a hotbed of independence. Just when the state gets pegged as a sure thing to go with the political flow, it changes course.Those shifts have been coming faster recently as an influx of better-educated, more worldly white-collar newcomers drawn by the still-robust economy begins to reach critical mass - especially in Boise.

With them has come a greater awareness of what many outside the Gem State consider "politically correct" thoughts and actions for the '90s.

"The type of people moving in are professionals with bachelor's degrees who are going to be less traditionally conservative," said Stephanie Witt, a political science professor at Boise State University.

In November, Idaho's seemingly staid burghers elected their first all-Democratic U.S. House delegation in 26 years. The congressmen in turn voted last month for continuing sanctions against Iraq instead of going to war.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus - who has made a political career out of getting ahead of the curve on conventional wisdom - gloried in taking the federal government to task for trying to ship nuclear waste to the state.

Recently, the contrast between Republican reserve and increasingly acceptable radical chic was highlighted by the start of a show by world-renowned "protest artist" Sue Coe at the Boise Art Museum.

Coe's "Moral Imperatives" display continues through March 3 and also features works by fellow protest artists Leon Golub and Marshall Arisman.

Filled with stark, black and gray images slashed with glaring red and yellow, Coe's paintings depict violence and rage - emaciated, burning human skeletons, tortured animals and crucified women.

In years past, her art might have been boycotted or openly reviled. Now it is quietly appreciated as a reflection of not yet mainstream but certainly less than revolutionary political and artistic expression.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 attended a recent film, slide show and lecture about her work.

"Her work is dark and disturbing," said Peggy Guiles, a graduate student at Boise State University and mother of a 16-year-old son. "But it's very much a part of my politics."

Yet Coe, a 39-year-old New Yorker and native of England, contends she paints only "a pale shadow" of the real life she sees around her. Her art depicts such socially troubling events as the New Bedford, Mass., rape of a woman by four men in a bar while 20 others watched.

Richard Young, curator of education at the Boise Art Museum, said Coe's type of paintings are rarely exhibited in public museums anywhere in the United States.

"She deals with issues most artists don't confront," Young said. "We wanted to try to bring something to Boise we don't normally see."

Coe, a vegetarian who brought her wares to a state where ranching still is a staple of the economy, also is working on a 10-year project depicting the exploitation of animals that she calls "Porkopolis."

She stirred the pot in Boise by visiting the city zoo with members of Idaho Voice for Animals, one of the state's first such home-grown activist groups. It is plowing new ground in Idaho, where the nation's largest mink farm still produces coats and stoles and animal husbandry remains a more common pursuit than animal rights.

At the zoo, Coe was particularly incensed by news that someone had shot and killed a mule deer there in October 1989. She wanted to help publicize what she considers an atrocity, offering to do a drawing of the deer and donate some prints for an Idaho Voice for Animals fund-raiser.

But man's cruelty to man elicits just as emotional a response from the artist, who found a receptive audience for an impassioned speech against the gulf war.

"The arms dealers have been smacking their chops at how much money they will make on this war," she said. "The men at the Pentagon are out of control."

At least until the war started, Coe seems to have had allies in Idaho's two U.S. congressmen. Freshmen Rep. Larry LaRocco and fourth-term Rep. Richard Stallings voted last month with the 183-member House minority against a resolution supporting President Bush's decision to use force against Saddam.

Both wanted to give economic sanctions more time to work, while Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Steve Symms stuck with the majority in supporting the president's position that time for the Iraqi leader had run out.

LaRocco said he was not taking a stand of conscience, but only reflecting what he saw as the wishes of his constituents.

"Before the bombing of Baghdad, letters were running 10 to 1 in favor of economic sanctions, urging me to exhaust diplomatic measures," he said. "There has been a lull since. The phones have stopped ringing, letters have stopped coming."

Whether that means LaRocco and Stallings bet wrong about how far the tide has turned in Idaho is yet to be determined. The proof could come in 1992, when LaRocco presumably will run for a second term in the House seat held for almost a quarter century before by Republicans, and Stallings seeks a fifth term or challenges Symms for the Senate.

As long as the war continues, it appears Idahoans are reluctant to stray too far from their conservative roots. But as the state's wide-open spaces, relatively low cost of living and other amenities continue to attract a new generation of voters, LaRocco, Stallings - and Coe - might be playing to a different constituency.