Houston — The presidential race in Texas moves to a Latin beat. The nation's fast-growing Hispanic population has already achieved a measure of political clout here that could determine the victor in this crucial state in November.
Texas, with 26 electoral votes, is one of a handful of large states that political analysts see as currently undecided, but potentially pivotal for either Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter. Independent John Anderson will be on the ballot in Texas but is not now considered a serious factor here.
Because of their large numbers and increasing tendency to turn out at the polls, Texas Hispanic voters are viewed by political analysts as the group most likely to swing the election one way or the other.
The candidates seem to agree, based on their recent campaign visits here. President Carter, in his first trip to the state as the Democratic nominee Sept. 15, underscored the importance of the Hispanic vote by holding a town meeting in Corpus Christi, which has a large number of Mexican-Americans. Mr. Reagan followed with a swing that concentrated on south Texas, where the Hispanic population also is large.
Neither candidate has yet corraled the majority of voters in Texas. The latest statewide poll by Texas Monthly magazine, taken Aug. 11, gave Reagan 49 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Carter. Mr. Anderson received 11 percent.
While most political observers here reckon Carter has gained ground since the August poll, they still give Reagan a slight edge.
"If the election were held today, Reagan would beat us," conceded Leonel Castillo, co-director of the Carter campaign in Texas and former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Mr. Castillo says Carter needs a "solid majority" of the votes from Hispanics and blacks in Texas to carry the state.
Texas was an important part of the Southern base that catapulted Carter to the White House in 1976. He defeated President Ford in this state by 129,000 votes, aided by 87 percent of the Hispanic vote.
However, several things have changed here since 1976:
* Texas now has a Republican governor, William Clements.
* The Hispanic population generally is regarded as less predictable than before in its voting behavior.
* This time Carter is facing Reagan, who is popular among not only Texas Republicans but also among independents and conservative Democrats.
Governor Clements showed in 1978 how a Republican can win Texas, despite a 2 -to-1 Democratic margin in voter registration. He campaigned actively for support among Hispanics and won about 30 percent of their votes, which many political analysts consider the margin that cemented his victory.
"Based on the new politics in this state, the Hispanics could swing the election" in November, asserts Lance Terrance of V. Lance Terrance & Associates, a Houston polling and research firm. Mr. Terrance believes Reagan's best strategy for winning Texas includes holding Carter to less than 80 percent of the Hispanic vote, and battling hard for other votes in metropolitan Houston. Although Houston traditionally has been considered a Democratic stronghold, Terrance says the huge population migration from out of state has made the city's voting tendency less predictable than usual.
Hispanic turnout at the polls could be the deciding factor in November, agrees Texas A & M University political scientist David B. Hill. A large turnout, he says, would favor Carter. But he wonders whether the prospects for heavy polling are good.
"Texans are not feeling the real sting of the recession," points out Professor Hill, and that could lessen the motivation for some Hispanics to vote.
However, recent voting patterns would suggest that Hispanic turnout might be unusually high this November. In the Texas Democratic primary earlier this year , 36 percent of the registered Mexican-Americans voted. That was the first time ever that the voting percentage of Mexican-Americans exceeded that of the rest of the population, according to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio.