GOP voter drive is its largest in a decade

Deep in the Democratic heart of east Texas, the Republicans of Hopkins County held a primary in May, and almost nobody came. The voters chose instead to cast their ballots in hotly contested Democratic races.

But not long afterward, the reelection campaign for President Reagan and Vice-President George Bush came seeking help and found 30 volunteers - more people than had voted in the local GOP primary. The 30 went door to door, seeking Reagan supporters who had not registered to vote.

The doorbell ringing in Hopkins County is a tiny part of the GOP's drive to add 2 million voters to the rolls by the end of this summer. The $8 million effort, the first major voter drive for the party in more than a decade, has already netted close to 800,000 new voters, according to Reagan-Bush campaign estimates.

On one day late last month a nationally orchestrated ''Reagan roundup'' mobilized 36,000 volunteers, who either identified or registered about 140,000 unregistered Reagan backers.

Possibly no one is more pleased with the outreach than Helen Cameron, who started her Republican work 23 years ago by recruiting voters in her hometown of Alamogordo, N.M., and who now directs the Reagan-Bush voter project.

''We're a minority party,'' notes Mrs. Cameron from her cubicle in the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Washington. She says she has long believed ''that we could not win elections until we got people who thought like we did registered.''

''I maintain that we can't preach to them until we've got them sitting in the choir,'' she says. Tacked over her desk is a map that highlights the states with a sizable number of Hispanics, a target group for her GOP recruitment effort.

But the impetus behind the GOP voter drive is concern about the massive registration campaigns of pro-Democratic labor and civil rights groups, as well as the effects of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's candidacy in bringing out black voters.

''They can outregister us 5 to 1,'' Mrs. Cameron says. ''We had to do something to balance it.'' So the Republicans have launched what is probably the most sophisticated search ever for new voters.

Democrats ''can go to shopping centers and they can go to food-stamp lines, and they can go to a lot of places'' and set up voter-registration tables, says Mrs. Cameron. But she recalls the one time she worked at a shopping center booth and came away with only three new Republican voters - and seven Democrats.

So the Republican National Committee and the Reagan-Bush campaign have joined to develop voter lists by computers programmed to ferret out pockets of likely Republicans who are not registered.

Mrs. Cameron's role is to take the campaign to the grass roots, putting together an army of 60,000 volunteers nationwide to telephone those prospects, visit them, and when necessary give them a ride to the registrar's office.

The effort is selective. It focuses on the South and Southwest and on precincts where Reagan and Republican candidates do well, especially boom areas where prosperous newcomers may not yet have registered. From these ripe fields, Mrs. Cameron plans to harvest a million of her new voters.

The second million is expected to come from Cuban- and Asian-Americans and from supporting groups, she says. These include nonpartisan voter-registration programs on military bases, as well as those operated by corporations and trade groups. One participating company, for example, has agreed to give employees two hours off to register and reward them with American flags when they present their voter's card.

Mrs. Cameron also estimates that Christian fundamentalists, working independently of the GOP, will register a million conservatives.

These new voters from military bases, businesses, and churches are not guaranteed to be Republicans, but ''I do think that these people will be voting for Reagan,'' Mrs. Cameron says.

She and fellow Republicans say the long-term effect of the voter drive will be to build up the party, especially in areas with almost no local GOP organization.

''This is going to pay tremendous dividends,'' says William B. Lacy, political director of the Republican National Committee (RNC). ''It's basically given all those states (with weak local GOP organizations) a training program (and) an opportunity to fire up volunteers and get them involved in the process.''

''Already it has been a great help to us,'' says Byron Nelson III, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, noting the President's popularity in his state.

Democrats are skeptical of the GOP claims of major advances. Texas Democrats, who have benefited from highly successful registration blitzes during four years , plan their own voter drive.

The GOP registration program is ''not a big threat to us,'' says Ann F. Lewis , political director of the Democratic National Committee. She told a recent press breakfast that in the Democratic view, Republicans ''register the needle in the haystack. We register the haystacks.''

The RNC's Mr. Lacy points out that because Republicans have a better voter turnout than Democrats, ''we don't have to register as many.'' The proof will come on election day, Mrs. Cameron says, shrugging off reports of up to 5 million new Democratic voters. She is already making plans for boosting voter turnout.

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