Houston — The recession has stalled the Republican Sunbelt surge.
GOP visions of a Republican march in the 1980s - from their Western-states strongholds across the South to Florida, locking up a presidential base for many elections to come - looks likely to suffer a major setback next week.
At every electoral level, in races for the US Senate and House, for governor, and for lesser state offices, Sunbelt Democrats have apparently recovered from their 1980 electoral trouncing. As a group, they hold the initiative going into next week's balloting.
In broad strategic terms, the Republicans now see a danger they will suffer a double regional defeat in this election.
In their former stronghold, the Midwest, they face a near-wipeout in the crucial governors' races. The prospect now, they concede, is that the Democrats might come up with a moderate-conservative presidential ticket in 1984, headed by someone like Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, who could attract votes in the South and perhaps intercept the GOP attempt to span the Sunbelt.
The old Democratic Northeast power base - a diagonal line from Washington, D.C., to Massachusetts - would become a vertical thrust from the Great Lakes southward, concerned GOP tacticians say.
The immediate battle for the Texas governorship - between feisty, acerbic Republican Gov. William Clements and equally dogged Democratic challenger Mark White, the Texas attorney general - is worthy of the two parties' struggle for Sunbelt supremacy.
Clearly, the recession has restored the Democrats' competitiveness across the Sunbelt. And nowhere is that more true than in Texas, where Governor Clements's boasts of endless boom times have been made to sound hollow by latest jobless figures.
Clements hits the recession issue head on. ''Texas has the nation's No. 1 economy,'' he says, with characteristic Lone Star State hyperbole. ''The national recession hit Texas last, hit Texas least, and will leave Texas quickest.''
Mr. White goes right after Clements on the economy, linking the Republican incumbent to Ronald Reagan, whom Clements played a crucial role in electing. ''National policy is directly responsible for high unemployment,'' White says. ''Reagan's supply-side economic theories are just as bad as demand-side economics. The Republicans in '84 won't carry Texas if they don't solve the business and farm problems in this state.''
Tactically, the economic issue puts the Republicans - even combative ones like Clements - on the defensive.
Also, the Democrats are pressuring the Republicans with far greater organizational effort than they mustered in 1980 or 1978. The Democrats have been hustling, using phone banks, canvassing, launching getting-out-the-vote drives.
''If our vote comes out, we'll win it,'' says Robert Slagel, Texas Democratic chairman, of the governor's race. ''In 1980 we had 36 county headquarters, fewer than 30 in 1978. This year we have 80 . . . where members are meeting and working.
Chester Upham, the Texas Republican chairman, concedes the other major Texas race, for the US Senate, is going to Democratic incumbent Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. ''A year ago the President put his arm around (Bentsen) on the White House steps and thanked him for his support on the tax and budget bills. Texas doesn't turn out an incumbent if he's seen as having done a decent job.''
For the same reason, Upham sees Clements ''way ahead'' in his race against White - a race most observers rate a tossup.
''There's a lot running on the governor's race for 1984,'' observes Richard Murray, a University of Houston expert on Texas politics. ''It's hard to imagine a reasonably embattled Reagan administration, as it's likely to be, winning the election without carrying Texas. One of the factors for 1984 would be whether you have a very aggressive Republican leading the fight here.
''Party activists and analysts agree, the Republicans would want to win two of the three big Sunbelt states - Florida, Texas, or California.''
To help them in Texas, and acknowledging its pivotal presidential role, the Republicans have picked Dallas for their 1984 national convention. The GOP very much wants Clements in the Texas governor's chair, as a symbol of GOP Sunbelt aspirations.
Meanwhile, House races across the Sunbelt show the Republicans making little headway, despite redistricting following the 1980 census. In the big states that the GOP hopes to control for another White House run, they will likely fall further behind the Democrats. In California and Texas, the Democrats are expected to win two of each state's three new seats. In Florida, which gets four new seats, the Republicans are thought likely to pick up just one. Thus Democrats are running ahead for seven of these 10 new House seats.
Democrats have shut the Republicans down in Florida's major races. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Robert Graham is apparently trouncing Rep. L. A. (Skip) Bafalis in the governor's race, and Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) is well ahead of state Sen. Van Poole, despite Mr. Chiles's decision to restrict his own campaign fundraising.
A bright spot for the GOP in the region is the governor's race in New Mexico, where Republican John Irick has pulled close to well-known Democrat Toney Anaya. And in Arkansas, incumbent Republican Gov. Frank White in early October began to close in on former Gov. Bill Clinton.