California, which has more Hispanic residents than all the other southwestern states combined, has only a handful of Latino officeholders, and efforts to harness the community into a formidable political force have proven to be extremely difficult.

Although two more Latino candidates are well on their way to Congress, a gubernatorial candidate fell by the wayside this year to popular Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is black.

And, after a series of difficult primary races, prospects for an increase in the number of Latinos serving in the legislature seem dim, despite an increase of 22 Latinos in school board and city council offices.

With more than 20 percent of the state's population estimated to be of Hispanic descent, California politicians--particularly in the Democratic Party--have pondered for years how to turn them into a productive voting bloc. But Latinos in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have had more success electing Hispanic mayors and governors than have their counterparts in California.

Ricardo Nieto, senior consultant to the state assembly's elections and reapportionment committee, said many California Hispanics are spread out in the Central Valley and in large city suburbs, making it more difficult to draw districts concentrating their power.

Assemblyman Art Torres, the winner in the Democratic primary for the east Los Angeles 24th state senate district, said so many Latinos are non-citizens, underage or out of touch with politics that they probably constitute only about 15 percent of registered voters in the state.

And those who do vote often chose candidates on other than ethnic grounds. The state's first viable Latino candidate for governor, former health and welfare secretary Mario Obledo, polled only 5 percent of the vote in the June 8 Democratic primary against Bradley.

Bill Calderon, field operations director for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said statistics may show that Obledo's candidacy did encourage many Hispanics to register for the first time, "which would justify his campaign."

Calderon's foundation-supported group conducted voter-registration campaigns in 45 areas of the state in an effort to increase overall Hispanic participation.

In the Torres race, his opponent, state Sen. Alex Garcia, was enraged that the 35-year-old assemblyman wanted to take his seat. During the campaign, Garcia materials underlined the fact that Torres is not a Roman Catholic (he is a Baptist), and alleged that Torres did not speak Spanish (he does).

One brochure offered a $100 savings bond to any voter who could find Torres' home. It also alluded to Torres' television newscaster wife, Yolanda Nava, and her use of a different last name in a way that suggested that the couple, who have two children, were not married. Garcia later said he meant to show that Torres lived in Sacramento, but not to cast doubt on his marital status.

Torres' former chief deputy, Gloria Molina, won the Democratic nomination to his assembly seat in a bitter race with former gubernatorial aide Richard Polanco. She is not expected to become the state's first female Hispanic legislator.

But farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, perhaps California's best known Hispanic, contributed manpower to try to beat both Torres and Molina, because Torres supported Willie Brown for assembly speaker in 1980 against Chavez' wishes.

In the Orange County 32nd senate district, carved out to favor a Latino candidate, Santa Ana City Councilman Al Serrato lost to former county Democratic chairman Frank Barbaro, an attorney of Italian descent who had helped many Latinos in his law practice.

The state senate will lose one Hispanic member, Republican Marz Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully for the lieutenant governor's nomination. Democrats often do not count him as a part of the Latino bloc because his Palo Alto district had few Latinos and he does not usually share the views of Democrats.

The state's single Hispanic member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Edward R. Roybal, is expected to be joined by former UNESCO ambassador Esteban Torres, who won the Democratic nomination in a new 34th District carved out especially by Rep. Phillip Burton, a reapportionment wizard. In the 30th District, vacated when Democrat George Danielson accepted a judgeship, Hispanic assemblyman Matthew G. Martinez won the Democratic primary. But he must contend in the November election with Rep. John H. Rousselot, a conservative Republican thrown into the contest by reapportionment .

Hispanic voters often take the conservative position on issues like crime and abortion, and Rousselot has a successful local Latino businessman, Salvador Montenegro, as his campaign chairman. "Hispanic voters tend to be a very patriotic group," Rousselot said. But Democratic activists, who generally dislike Rousselot, will be making a special effort to beat him. "I would even be willing to lose Phil Burton [the state's leading congressional Democrat] if I could get Rousselot," said one.