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Battle for Texas Senate seat highlights party tug-of-war over control of South

While Republicans exude confidence that President Reagan will be a winner in November, so far their confidence is more guarded about Mr. Reagan's pulling power for GOP candidates lower on the ballot.

But if any candidate has felt at least a temporary boost from the presidential campaign, it is former Texas A&M University economics professor Phil Gramm, the lanky, bright, and often strident congressman who was one of the chief architects of Mr. Reagan's economic program.

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Arch-conservative Gramm, now in a race against Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett for the US Senate, basked in the klieg lights at the Republican National Convention in Dallas. By Mr. Gramm's count, he gave more than 20 live broadcast interviews to Texas television stations. As Reagan passed him at a convention breakfast, he clasped Gramm's hand, raising it victoriously in the air, just as a photographer snapped a picture that appeared in a Houston paper the next day.

And not the least in importance for Gramm, he was the chief beneficiary of a

Within hours of the fund-raiser, however, Gramm was back on the campaign trail heading for Austin, where a mostly Democratic group of local officials in the Texas Association of Counties was holding court for both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Senate.

''We're back in the real world, boys,'' Gramm told his campaign workers en route to the event.

The real world of the Texas Senate race provides one of the starkest choices in 1984 politics. The differences between the two candidates are as sharply defined as the towering Dallas cityscape on the flat Texas terrain.

On one side is state Senator Doggett, a young Democrat who was elected to the Legislature at 26 and has spent 11 years passing laws to make Texas government protect consumers, the elderly in nursing homes, and minorities.

On the other is Gramm, who has devoted his public life to cutting back government's reach. His first act when he came to Congress six years ago, he proudly boasts, was to sponsor a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

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The two Senate hopefuls are on opposite sides of the so-called social agenda. Gramm supports stringent anti-abortion measures, while Mr. Doggett not only takes a ''freedom of choice'' stand but would permit federal funds for abortions for the poor in some cases.

Doggett backs the nuclear weapons freeze; Gramm opposes it. Doggett would increase federal aid to education; Gramm has moved to reduce it.

Moreover, the race is a battleground for the two parties in their struggle for Texas. Sen. John Tower, the incumbent who is retiring after four terms, proved a Republican could win. But he barely eked out a victory in his last reelection bid.

Doggett stands for the Democratic tradition in Texas, where it is said some voters would cast their ballot for a ''yellow dog'' before voting for a Republican.

''Let him say he's a Democrat, and I'll vote for him,'' proclaims an elderly woman attending a breakfast for Doggett in the tiny south-central Texas town of Llano.

Gramm, perhaps more than any other politician, represents the GOP inroads into the once-solid Democratic South. A former Democrat, he used his post on the House Budget Committee to help write the Reagan administration's 1981 landmark cost-cutting budget, known as the Gramm-Latta bill. Then, after fellow Democrats refused to return him to the Budget Committee in 1983, Gramm resigned his congressional seat and switched to the GOP. When torn between his conservative constituents and the liberal House Democratic leadership, he says, ''I decided to 'dance with him what brung me.' ''

The explanation satisfied Gramm's House district, which sent him back with a resounding special-election victory. But it doesn't please all Texans. ''I don't like turncoats,'' huffs Vera Honig, a Llano Democrat.

Gramm, who needs Democratic votes, focuses on issues instead of party. ''My differences with my opponent don't have anything to do with partisanship,'' he told the Texas Association of Counties. The differences are in philosophy and values, he said.

The Republican is hitting hard on both subjects, painting Doggett as a big-spending liberal and lambasting him for taking a donation from a homosexual-rights group that sponsored a strip show. (Doggett returned the contribution, and his campaign maintains he had no prior knowledge of the fund-raiser.)

Both charges have put the Democrat on the defensive. ''I'm basically content with my voting record and what it represents,'' he said between campaign stops in central Texas. ''But I don't portray it as liberalism.''

Instead, he says he has a ''mainstream approach'' to legislating. He berates Gramm for being an ''extremist'' whose voting record has been ranked the most conservative in Congress by the National Journal.

''From that position, even Jesse Helms looks a little leftish,'' he says.

Speaking to the annual Dove Festival in the town of Hamilton, Doggett reminded voters that Gramm opposed federal programs to help Texas businesses and ranches and wrote the bill ending minimum social security benefits.

The campaign is uphill for the Democrat, as recent polls confirm. Gramm had at least a 10-point lead in his own poll before the GOP convention. Moreover, the Democrats have already tapped their contributors for millions of dollars on both a heated primary and an expensive runoff primary, which Doggett won by a mere 1,345 votes. The Republicans, who had no runoff, will likely outspend Doggett.

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