Houston — The American "frontier spirit" is alive and well in the US Southwest, and that bodes well for presidential candidates in the conservative spectrum. Old West tradition and modern economic growth live together rather congenially in this area of rugged yet appealing landscapes.
As newcomers pour into the region, seeking jobs and a life style many find no longer available in other, more-developed areas of the United States, they act as an engine generating opportunities for longtime residents as well.
The result: a composite view that the 1980s will be a time of greater prosperity for the Southwest and a tendency to want to carefully guide and nurture the expected growth and protect it from outside shocks.
This sentiment -- emerging from Monitor interviews in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona -- makes for a relatively upbeat, though conservative, mood as voters prepare for the coming presidential primaries (Texas, Republicans only, May 3; New Mexico, June 3) and the fall general election.
In Texas, a crucial state in November -- with the nation's fourth-largest count of electoral votes -- "the ideology that this is the last frontier of free enterprise" is strong and sets the tenor for the economic conservatism that pervades much of the Southwest, points out one political analyst. Although an awareness of the problems of growth is surfacing in this region, government restrictions on building and development are mostly shunned.
Voters in this region typically cite the US economy as their chief concern. There is fear that high inflation, steep interest rates, and a recession will dampen the rising standard of living in the Southwest and take the bloom off what has been rather free-wheeling economic growth.
Per capita income in the region grew considerably faster than the national average in the 1970s. Still, income remains low in much of the Southwest, particularly among Indian and Hispanic groups.
Traits of the rugged individualist, a symbol of the Old West, are still evidenced today in the area. There is the Texas oil wildcatter, willing to take great risk for potentially great reward; the Arizona farmer, who makes a parched desert yield food; or the young business graduate who moves to Albuquerque, N.M. , for low wages on faith the area will be the new high-technology center of the US in the 1980s.
Respect and admiration for this maverick spirit run deep. It was evident in the regional support former Texas Gov. John Connally gained in the Southwest -- particularly in Texas and Arizona -- in his early bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Connally's image as a wheeler-dealer and his popularity in the business community were viewed as assets in the minds of many Southwestern voters. But they proved mostly negative factors nationally.
The strong support here among longtime residents and newcomers alike of the free enterprise system is coupled with a common criticism that the federal government is too big and too meddlesome. National polls indicate this anti-government feeling is not unique to the Southwest, but it appears particularly deep-rooted in this part of the country.
"Inflation debases the economy and the moral structure of the country. It causes people to question the democratic system. And the way things are now, there is a tendency by many to question whether our free enterprise system can function," says James L. Powell, a cattle rancher in Fort McKavett, Texas.
Mr. Powell says President Carter's plan of fighting inflation with high interest rates and tight credit has soured his business. "Last year, we were receiving a good price for our cattle. But high interest rates have raised the cost of doing business for feedlot operators, so they don't pay as much for our cattle. A lot of ranchers in the Panhandle have had to shut down, and if I start losing money, I'll have to consider liquidating also."
Like many Texans, Mr. Powell calls himself a conservative with no particular party loyalty. He says he will vote this year based on which presidential candidate he believes can best correct the nation's economic problems of rapid inflation and sagging productivity.
James Beard, a black Houston lawyer and dean at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, says inflation is his top concern, although he does not blame President Carter fully for rapidly rising consumer prices. "The seeds of inflation were planted many years ago. In this difficult time, Carter has done well," he says.
A machinist who lives 10 miles from Albuquerque says: "Inflation worries me the most. I feel it in everything. Prices are going up, and I can't seem to save any money. I can't afford to drive into town any more, so I have to take the bus."
Says Houston housewife Darlene Bednerik: "I'm looking at the economy, and I'm also looking at what is happening to us internationally. They seem connected. My household problems are related to the national economy, and that is tied to the world situation."
Although Mrs. Bednerik lives in a middle-class neighborhood and is not strapped to make ends meet for her small family, she says higher prices have made her and her husband "less adventurous in our life style and given us more of a feeling that we better just hold on to what we've got."
In some respects, Americans from all parts of the country have been "voting with their feet" for a decade in moving to the Southwest, agree a number of social scientists and political analysts.
The 1980 national census count is expected to show that over the past decade the Southwest added population at a rate more than twice that of the nation as a whole -- and exceeded the rates of other Sunbelt states, with the exception of Florida.
What do these newcomers have in common and how will it affect the vote in the Southwest?
"People are somewhat protective of their status here, and that makes them more conservative as voters. They want to protect the economic well-being of the area," surmises Jan Van Lohuizen, a political scientist and vice-president of V. Lance Tarrance & Associates, a national polling and research firm based in Houston.
This is particularly true in Texas, where the state's relatively low cost of living, lack of a state income tax, and energy-resource wealth have attracted jobs and career-minded young professionals. Net migration to Texas is running at 125,000 people per year, economists estimate, and about two-thirds of the newcomers come for job-related reasons.
In Texas, the nation's leading energy-producing stae, public polls show as much suspicion of oil companies as in the rest of the country, according to Mr. Van Lohuizen.
But Texans tend to be more critical of national energy policy, which they think has been oriented to energy-consuming states. Government price controls, the argument goes, have in the past encouraged consumption while not adequately rewarding producing states for the depletion of their most valuable natural resource.
There also is concern that the push for greater energy independence falls heavily on Texas, which already has taken considerable environmental risks with extensive onshore and offshore oil and gas exploraiton and the siting of refineries and petrochemical plants along the coast.
As one moves west into New Mexico and Arizona, the reasons for the population expansion are not as clear-cut as the economic prosperity that explains much of the Texas attraction. Newcomers see these areas as offering a better "quality of life," which includes a favorable climate, a rugged and largely undeveloped environment, cities that are more suburban and less crowded than many older cities elsewhere, as well as a prosperous economy.
Indeed, although a plurality of voters in Arizona and New Mexico consider themselves politically conservative, their views on a number of subjects that affect quality of life -- such as energy conservation, pollution, and land development -- tend to be "experimental and progressive," according to pollster Earl de Berge, president of the Behavior Research Center in Phoenix.
He says, for example, that regional polls of residents of New Mexico and Arizona show they are increasingly protective of the frontier qualities of the environment and are generally in favor of more restrained development, with the emphasis on "quality" growth.
So, for the Southwest as a whole, it is too simplistic to expect these newcomers to be "politically homogeneous," says Richard M. Scammon, political analysts and director of the Elections research Center in Washington.
What binds them together is a willingness to seek out opportunities, even at the risk of uprooting and moving up a new environmnt. "These are people looking for new options," says Mr. Scammon.
How the conservative mood of the Southwest will translate to votes in 1980 is far from clear.
The Texas Republican presidential primary is open and could draw large numbers of independents, who outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state. The state Democratic Party will select its presidential delegates later at a state convention.
The Texas GOP primary could offer an interesting preview of how Republican front-runner Ronald Reagan might do here in November if he is the party's nominee, since to carry the state he would have to draw a large number of traditionally Democratic voters.
President Carter carried Texas in 1976, but Mr. Reagan has deep support in the state, as indicated by his 2-to-1 victory over Gerald Ford in the Republican primary four years ago.
New Mexico, with its large Hispanic population, is the most liberal voting state in the Southwest, but it has been growing more conservative in recent years, says University of New Mexico political scientist F. Chris Garcia. He point out that three of the state's four congressmen and US senators are Republicans. Gerald Ford carried the state over Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Arizona, on the other hand, has traditionally been conservative and, if anything, has been moderated in recent years. "The picture of Arizona as solid Barry Goldwater country is not really true any more," says Mr. de Berge.
Although Arizona has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1948, Mr. de Berge says polls now show it to be a swing state that could "flip-flop all over the place."
Newcomers are largely responsible for a fluid and unpredictable political environment in the Southwest. Roughly one-third of the residents of metropolitan Phoenix and Albuquerque, for example, have moved there in the past five years. "This has enormous political impact that is almost impossible to pinpoint this soon," Mr. de Berge says.