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Hispanic Politicians Ride to Fore of Texas Races

IN November, the top of the ballot in Texas will be populated with more Hispanics than ever before.

Immediately beneath the list of presidential candidates, voters will find the name Victor Morales, the unheralded Dallas-area high school civics teacher who won a runoff last week to become the Democratic nominee for United States Senate.

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Below his name will be that of Hector Uribe of Brownsville, another Democrat who is running for the Texas Railroad Commission. In El Paso, voters will find the name of Silvestre Reyes, the former head of the Border Patrol in the region, who has become the favorite to win election to the US House of Representatives.

Messrs. Morales, Uribe, and Reyes are symbolic of a rise in the number of Hispanics running for powerful offices nationwide.

While Hispanics have been making some inroads in American politics in recent years, they still don't occupy offices in proportion to their numbers - nor exercise the influence at the ballot box they could. This fall's elections in Texas will test whether they can reach a new threshold - and how well Hispanic candidates will draw non-Hispanic voters.

The popularity of Hispanic candidates is "a growing phenomenon," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles. "Texas has the strongest voting base for Hispanic voters of all the states. And Texas usually acts as the forerunner," Mr. Vargas says. "Soon, we'll have California and other states follow."

Analysts from both parties say the presence of so many Hispanics on the ballot will also increase the participation of Latino voters, who traditionally vote Democratic. If enough Hispanic voters go to the polls, President Clinton, who lost Texas in 1992 to former President Bush, may stand a chance of winning Texas' rich pool of presidential delegates.

"It's good for the Hispanic community, and the Democratic Party gets a real shot in the arm," says Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. Speaking of Morales, who drove his 1992 Nissan truck 60,000 miles during his campaign, Mr. Miller says, "This guy in a pickup truck has probably done as much to shake up the presidential sweepstakes as anybody else. Texas is in play because of Victor Morales."

Even though Morales, who spent less than $50,000 on his campaign, triumphed over John Bryant, a former US Representative from Dallas, most pundits doubt that Morales can beat Republican Sen. Phil Gramm. By the end of last week, Morales had some $26,500 in the bank. Senator Gramm, a shrewd politician who is known for his hard campaigning, had $3.5 million.

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Morales, the first minority in Texas history to win a major party nomination for governor or senator, will definitely have an uphill battle in his bid to unseat Gramm.

Only four incumbent US senators from Texas have been voted out of office in the past eight decades. And Texas, which used to be a Democratic mainstay, has become a GOP fortress: Gov. George W. Bush, Gramm, and US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison are GOP members. Republicans are also gaining ground in both houses of the legislature.

But Morales is receiving friendly treatment from the media and he will get a lot of help from other Democrats. Less than 36 hours after the last votes in the runoff election were counted, Morales was sitting across from Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska aboard a sleek private jet provided by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The jet ferried the trio to fund-raisers in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. And the committee could give Morales up to $1.6 million for his Senate bid.

"The guy is 'Mr. Gonzales goes to Washington,' " says Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin and the vice president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a think tank that studies the role of Latinos in public policy.

Mr. de la Garza says Morales got a lot of votes from non-Hispanics in the runoff, a factor that must be repeated for Morales to prevail in November. "The minorities couldn't have elected him alone," he says. "He got a lot of support from whites."

About 25 percent of the Texas population is Hispanic. But Latino voters are notorious for staying at home on election day. Political analysts say Morales's position at the top of the ticket should draw them to the polls. If that occurs, it will likely help Uribe, who is vying for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission.

In El Paso, Reyes, a Democrat with conservative positions on immigration, is expected to get support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

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