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A Texas Sneak Preview Of GOP '96 Campaign

Candidates must declare early in the Lone Star State

REPUBLICANS in Texas are attempting to complete the biggest political realignment in the state since Reconstruction.

They already own the governor's mansion, both US Senate seats, and all three slots on the powerful Railroad Commission. They also dominate the Board of Education and state Supreme Court.

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Now the GOP is poised to grab control of the state Senate, and possibly the House, for the first time in more than a century. The party needs just two more Senate seats and 12 additional House seats.

Such a shift would add to the growing influence of the GOP in the South. It would also give the party a firm hold on a state crucial in presidential balloting.

An early look at how the two parties might do will come soon. Most states with an early presidential primary conduct another primary for lesser offices in spring or summer. Texas, however, holds them all on Super Tuesday in March. Potential candidates for thousands of posts down to public weigher must therefore commit to run by Jan. 2, months before the deadline elsewhere.

In the past, when previous filing deadlines elapsed, Democrats in this traditionally Democratic stronghold often found themselves winners by default. Republicans failed to field candidates for numerous legislative and lesser races.

This year, strategists in both parties say national politics - played out in such things as the hard-fought battles over the budget on Capitol Hill - may quash some of the enthusiasm of potential Republican candidates in Texas. Analysts will be watching to see if the state may be a bellwether for any decline in Republican interest in pursuing offices in other states.

But a glance at next year's Texas races suggests a banner year for the GOP. ''The conventional wisdom is that in '96, it would be practically impossible for a Democrat to win a statewide race,'' says George Christian, who was press secretary Lyndon Johnson.

At the top of the ballot is the presidential race. Many Democratic strategists say President Clinton won't win Texas. Republicans say he may be reelected by focusing on other states.

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Under those circumstances, ''Clinton isn't going to put a nickel into Texas,'' predicts Dean Rindy, a Democratic media consultant in Austin.

Democrats are apprehensive about the lack of a big-money candidate to draw out their voters. Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm, hold six of the offices that will be elected statewide in 1996. Two others are open, vacated by Democrats. A lone incumbent Democrat will seek reelection.

That gives Democrats ''big blanks'' in top state races, says Dan McClung, a Democratic consultant in Houston. ''They're not going to be filled by people who are well known ... or well financed.''

But if the ballot is stacked against Democrats, the issues no longer are. ''The Democrats have finally got a message that resonates,'' Mr. McClung says.

The message is one they'll be trying out nationally: that Republicans want to cut taxes for the rich at the expense of the needy. ''I don't know a district that that won't work in,'' McClung says.

Peck Young, a Democratic consultant in Austin, says Texans no longer identify his party as wrong on guns, gays, and God. The Oklahoma City bombing changed minds on guns. Gays in the military is too old an issue. And Democrats ''ambushed by the Christian Coalition'' in the last election will be ready to confront them.

Besides, Democrats have a new G-issue: Gingrich.

''[House Speaker] Newt Gingrich will be the bogey man in '96 that [President] Clinton was in '94,'' predicts Mark McKinnon, a former Democratic consultant in Austin.

Karl Rove, political adviser to Republican Gov. George Bush, says that is not likely. ''In January, [Gingrich] starts to lose his visibility,'' Mr. Rove says, as voters focus on the presidential race.

But that's cold comfort for Royal Masset. As political director of the Republican Party of Texas, he persuades people to seek office under the GOP banner.

Mr. Masset says the timing of the filing period makes it difficult to sign up candidates. His party's popularity has plunged, he says, because of the still-unresolved budget fight in Washington. He worries that the bad vibes will scare off candidates he has worked hard to enlist.

But another GOP analyst says that Republican voters in polls have approved of their party's stance in the budget fight. And a GOP consultant in Houston says the battle has boosted one potential congressional candidate's motivation to run.

Still, some hesitant first-timers for lower offices might be dissuaded. And that's where the GOP has the hardest time finding candidates.

The political climate is not the only factor that sways decisions to run. There is the overlap of the filing period with the Christmas season. Inevitably, time spent with family can cause holiday dropouts - candidates who decide that a run for office isn't worth the personal sacrifice.

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