As the Carter-Reagan gap narrows in the waning days of the presidential campaign, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Hispanic-American vote could make the difference in several key states -- particularly California, Florida, and Texas.
In years past, Democrats could count on the vast majority of Hispanic Americans to line up behind their candidates, but as the nation's fastest-growing minority group gains in political influence and sophistication, this is no longer the case.
Mr. Reagan is actively courting this sizable group, playing on the dissatisfaction that many Spanish-speaking Americans feel toward President Carter.
"The perception in our community is that this administration has not kept its promises," says Raul Yzaguirre, president of the national council of La Raza, a nonpartisan umbrella organization representing 130 Hispanic groups.
Hispanic leaders around the country cite Mr. Carter's failure to name a Hispanic Cabinet member, lack of progress on bilingual education, the move to send Cuban refugees to Puerto Rico, and immigration policy as reasons for disillusionment with the incumbent. The President's proposal to reform federal policy regarding illegal aliens -- stalled in Congress and now being studied by a commission -- was widely criticized by Hispanic leaders.
At a recent convention of Mexican-American Political Association officials, Carter won formal endorsement, but he got the 60 percent required by a single vote.
Many Hispanic Americans are attracted to Reagan's campaign emphasis on the family, religion, and such related issues as abortion, note a number of spokesman for that Hispanics like the fact that the son of GOP vice-presidential candiate George Bush married a Mexican woman.
Among many Hispanic Americans, "feel" for a candidate also is very important. "Reagan does have sort of that 'macho' image, and with our vote that helps," says Roberto Fabricio, editor of the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald.
"They have a hard time getting excited about Carter," admits John Echeveste, spokesman for Hispanic-American Democrats, a two-year old group with 30 state chapters.
While the Hispanic vote could be important in New York, Florida, Michigan, and Illinois as well as smaller states in the Southwest, it is in Texas and California that both Carter and Reagan are concentrating their efforts. With widespead registration, the Hispanic percentage of Texas voters has jumped from 7.7 to nearly 14 since 1976.
Four years ago Carter won Texas by only 121,000 votes. He did this by denying all but 13 percent of the Hispanic vote to Gerald Ford.In 1978, William P. Clements Jr. won about one-fourth the Hispanic vote in becoming the first Republican governor of Texas in more than a century. Some see this trend of more Mexican-Americans voting Republican continuing.
"If Reagan gets 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, or if voter turnout drops significantly, he could win Texas," Mr. Fabricio predicts.
On the other hand, Carter could benefit from the fact that the number of local elected Hispanic officials (the vast majority of whom are Democrats) has grown sharply in recent years -- up nearly 30 percent in Texas since 1976 and reaching near-parity with Mexican-American population percentages in Arizona and Colorado, reports William Velasquez of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.
"Unlike past years, there are a large number of Hispanic elected officials telling people to pull the big lever and vote Democratic straight across the board," says Ruben Bonilla, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
But at a recent Los Angeles meeting, a coalition of 25 Hispanic groups refused to endorse any candidate for the presidency, notwithstanding heavy lobbying on behalf of Carter by representatives of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.
"I think that was very significant," said Al Zapanta, California chairman of the "Viva Reagan-Bush" committee. "Democrats have been told in no uncertain terms that they can't take us for granted."