In an effort to shore up his standing among Hispanic voters, President Carter last Thursday nominated Edward Hidalgo to the important and prominent position of secretary of the Navy.

One day later, White House officials discovered some unsettling political news: Hidalgo had worked for -- and perhaps even led -- a California group called Hispanics for Nixon in 1972.

"Geez," said one prominent Hispanic attorney who confirmed the report and expressed shock that the White House "hadn't done its homework."

"You'd think that they could've found one true Democrat among all of the Hispanics in this country to fill that position," he said.

But, for its part, the White House yesterday was maintaining a stiff upper lip.

Politics really did not figure into Hidalgo's nomination, said one White House official who requested anonymity.

"Based on an inquiry (Friday), we found that he had worked with the Nixon group . . . . But our concern is that he has excellent credentials to serve as Navy secretary. He did a fine job as assistant secretary of the Navy and he is well-respected in and out of Washington," the official said.

Most Hispanic political leaders and some Hispanic administration appointees reached by The Washington Post were philosophical about Hidalgo's political past.

"Hell, yes, he worked for Nixon," said Texas state Rep. Benjamin Reyes, commenting on Hidalgo.

Reyes, a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" who is knowledgeable about Texas and national Hispanic political affairs, said he "could care less" about Hidalgo's past associations.

"Hidalgo came into Washington under the Nixon adminstration," Reyes added. "He worked his way up. You can't criticize him for that. Hell, any qualified, capable Chicano that has put up with Washington for the past seven years like Hidalgo, and who has finally worked his way up to the top, has my respect. I'm proud of him."

Also typical of Hispanic reaction was a comment that came from Tony Bonilla, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights and social service group.

"I really don't care who he worked for in the past," Bonilla said, laughing. "He's Hispanic. The man, so far, has been a very competent, articulate spokesman in the government. To me, that makes him a competent, articulate spokesman for the Hispanic community."

Hidalgo was out of town and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A native of Mexico who became a naturalized American citizen as a young child, Hidalgo, 66, spent 19 years of his adult life as an attorney in Mexico City. In the Carter administration, he has served as assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and logistics.

In naming Hidalgo to the Navy's top post, Carter bypassed James Woolsey, undersecretary of the Navy, who had outranked Hidalgo in the Navy's civilian hierarchy.

White House sources said yesterday that Hidalgo got the nod because he had other things going for him besides qualifications and political considerations.

"He is well-thought of" by outgoing Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor Jr., one White House official said. "Claytor recommended Assistant Secretary Hidalgo as his replacement."