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Democratic showdown in Texas

The real battle for Texas between the Democratic presidential contenders is being tirelessly fought on the phone. Campaigners here are less concerned with polls, issues, and reaching the masses than with reaching the precious few Texas Democrats who traditionally brave the two-step system to vote in the caucuses. Voters here must first cast a ballot in the congressional primary Saturday, then return for precinct caucuses at 7 that evening.

Only the most devoted or civic-minded Democrats make it that far, usually fewer than 30 in each of 6,600 Texas precincts, based on past caucuses.

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US Rep. Martin Frost, Sen. Gary Hart's Texas campaign chief, compares the phone campaign to ''finding 20 needles in each of 6,600 haystacks.''

In this battle for 169 of Texas' 200 delegates, political analysts generally agree that Walter F. Mondale has the bigger army.

Mr. Mondale has been building his Texas organization since 1981. He has the overt support of the Texas Democratic Party, and politicos here speculate he will know personally more Texas delegates at the San Francisco convention than from any state but his native Minnesota.

Senator Hart's strength is his appeal to the Texas tendency to buck the system and vote anti-establishment.

''That's the thing that could be Hart's secret weapon,'' says George Shipley, a Democratic pollster here in Austin. ''Texas has a way of occasionally taking the caucuses away from the party regulars.'' He adds, however, that he hasn't seen the intensity in the Hart campaign to spark that ''anti-authoritarian feeling in Texas.''

Political strategists divide Texas generally into at least four regions. Hart's strength is in west Texas - the 15 percent of the total state Democratic vote that lies west of I-35 connecting Fort Worth and San Antonio - where Democrats are conservative and somewhat anti-institutional.

Mondale is strongest in east Texas, especially southern east Texas along the Gulf Coast, where labor is well organized. ''You run out there on who's the most Democratic,'' explains political consultant Richard Jensen.

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In largely Hispanic south Texas, Mondale may fare even better. He has had the vigorous support of Henry Cisneros, the popular San Antonio mayor, who is presumed to be influential across Hispanic Texas.

Dwayne Holman, who leads Mondale's Texas campaign, is gunning for a ''shutout'' in south Texas. That would mean that Hart and Jesse Jackson each fail to reach the 20 percent threshold that qualifies them for delegates.

Hart, however, also has a healthy share of endorsements from Hispanic leaders and is campaigning hard in the Rio Grande valley.

A big-city Texas is tougher to sort out. Austin is a university town with a fairly young population. Hart is popular here. Labor has a heavier hand in Houston, and unions are monolithically for Mondale. Dallas is more conservative generally, with a greater influx of the young professionals that have been a staple of Hart's support.

Mr. Holman points out that many of the suburban precincts where Hart may run well traditionally go Republican, so they are allotted fewer Democratic delegates.

No one is expecting much from the ''Yuppies'' (young urban professionals) in Texas because the caucuses are held on Saturday night.

''The Yuppies are not a factor in Texas,'' says Congressman Frost of the Hart campaign. ''Because of the two-step (voting) process, it's unrealistic to build a campaign on those people.''

But, unlike most observers here, Frost doesn't see the demanding caucus system working against Gary Hart.

''It's like a football game played in bad weather,'' he says. ''It rains on both teams.''

Since the same people tend to participate year after year in Texas, as analyst Jensen points out, both Hart and Mondale campaigners have lists of who came to the 1980 and 1982 caucuses, as well as the much greater number of Democrats who voted in the primaries but didn't return for the caucuses.

These are the people getting phone calls.

Polling by George Shipley and by the Dallas Morning News last week shows Mondale running 7 to 11 percentage points ahead of Hart among eligible Democrats. Mr. Jackson is favored by about 7 percent of those polled.

In central Texas, where Jackson is strongest so far, his campaign cites polls showing him the favorite candidate in 70 percent of black households.

Hazel Obey, who is running Jackson's phoning operation from Austin, says Jackson people aren't calling the list of caucus regulars. ''I'm not looking for them,'' she says. Rather, she hopes to bring in outsiders Saturday night. ''The majority of people working on this campaign have not participated before.''

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