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In a corner of Texas, parties watch for signs of swing to the GOP

The much-discussed ``realignment'' of the South as a Republican stronghold could receive a new infusion of attention this summer. The focus is on a Texas congressional district held by the Democrats since Reconstruction. The question is whether it will fall to the GOP.

A nonpartisan special primary election is set for June 29 in the state's First Congressional District, a rural swatch of former cotton land and towns like Paris, Marshall, and Texarkana. The election will fill the seat of former Rep. Sam Hall (D), who resigned the northeast Texas seat in May to take a federal judgeship.

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The district, tight up against Arkansas and Louisiana, never went for a Republican candidate until last year, when President Reagan and GOP Sen. Phil Gramm carried it by wide margins. Now state and national Republican leaders are hoping that Edd Hargett, a former Texas A&M quarterback with no political experience, will win. A Hargett victory would prove that the party's November triumph was a harbinger rather than a fluke.

``It will prove that traditionally Democratic Southern districts are now places where Republicans can win,'' says Tom Hockaday of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats, while playing down any national significance to the race, know they must keep the seat to stave off doomsaying about the party's prospects in state elections next year. Their task is complicated by the fact that seven Democrats have entered the race, including a former district attorney, a former state treasurer, and two state representatives.

Most state and local political observers expect no one will receive the majority vote this month, and that Mr. Hargett and the top Democrat will face a July runoff.

Texas Democrats are still reeling from the loss of four congressional seats in November. The Texas delegation was once one of the most solidly Democratic. But with 10 Republicans among its 27 members, it now has the third-largest Republican membership in the US House.

Despite these figures, state Democratic Party chairman Bob Slagle discounts the realignment theory, saying that what is occurring is more of a ``dealignment'' from political parties in general.

``We used to have rock-ribbed states'' that always went to one party, he says, ``but ever since the campaigns moved to television, we don't see that any more.''

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Mr. Slagle says the district went Republican last year because its traditionally conservative voters rebuffed what they perceived to be liberal Democratic candidates. This month, he notes, voters will have on the ballot the names of familiar, conservative Democrats.

``Everyone is claiming to be as conservative as he possibly can,'' says Wayne Massey, organizations director for the state Republican Party.

And that is becoming more true of the state as a whole. The Texas Poll found in January that 39 percent of Texans claimed to be conservative, vs. 18 percent liberal and 35 percent moderate. In December '83, by comparison, the greatest number -- 41 percent -- claimed to be moderate, with 35 percent conservative.

In the January survey, party affiliation was split evenly among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Yet just two years earlier, 38 percent were Democrats, with only 22 percent Republican.

How much this GOP growth will be reflected in the First District is what has state politicians buzzing. Democrats, headed by US Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, are planning a major campaign after the primary. House majority leader Jim Wright of Fort Worth is expected to help out.

And Texan defectors from the Democratic Party, including Senator Gramm, are telling district voters that the GOP better represents their views. There is even speculation that the highest Democratic defector of all -- President Reagan -- may visit the district after the primary.

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