Houston mayoral candidate Louie Welch's off-the-cuff remark -- delivered into what he thought was a dead microphone -- that one way to control AIDS was to "shoot the queers" has drawn denunciations from leaders of gay rights groups and for the first time thrust the disease into the heart of a major political campaign.

Welch made the comment Thursday while waiting to be interviewed by KTRK-TV in Houston about his proposal to control AIDS, a deadly immune-system disorder, many of whose victims have been homosexual men. Due to a technical mixup, his comment was broadcast live on the station's 5 p.m. news program.

"I apologize, but I don't think I had the gay vote anyway," Welch said afterwards. The former five-term major is seeking to win back his old job from Mayor Kathy Whitmire in the Nov. 5 election.

"We were horsing around. I inadvertently pulled a Reagan," he added, a reference to the president's open mike "joke" in 1984 about bombing "the Russians."

Welch's remark was front-page news in both Houston papers yesterday. The vice president of the Houston Gay Political Caucus, Thomas J. Coleman Jr., has called on Welch to withdraw from the race. And Ron Najman, a spokesman for the National Gay Task Force in New York, said: "You just don't make jokes like that. It's unconscionable. It's a reflection of the anti-gay hysteria that is being whipped up all over the country, especially in Houston."

Houston has the largest openly gay community of any city in the Southwest, but it also has a strong "Bible Belt" strain in its population that finds the gay life style repugant. That mixture, combined with fears in the general public about AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), had made the disease a factor in the campaign even before the Welch gaffe.

The ballot includes a "Straight Slate" seeking to unseat city council members who last year voted for an ordinance that would protect homosexuals from discrimination in city employment. The ordinance was defeated, 4 to 1, in a referendum earlier this year after an emotional campaign in which the fear of AIDS was given prominence.

Welch, 66, was a leader of the effort to defeat the ordinance, but until this week, he has not made concern about AIDS the centerpiece of his campaign. He spoke more generally of a return to traditional values.

However, trailing 10 to 20 points in the polls, Welch on Thursday unveiled a program to combat the disease, which has claimed 42 new victims in Houston this year. He called for closing gay bathhouses, testing male and female prostitutes, and issuing health cards to all people who handle food in their jobs.

A Whitmire spokesman said yesterday she finds the Welch proposals unncessary or impractical and that she is studying ways to try to control the disease.

Welch campaign strategists say they will focus their televison advertising on AIDS in the final 10 days of the campaign. "We're going to apologize for the remark but then go on to discuss what we think is a very serious issue," one said.

Meanwhile, opinion is divided as to whether Welch -- whose blunt, "old-school" political style contrasts with Whitmire's cool, managerial demeanor -- has hurt or helped himself with the remark.

Najman said he felt the gaffe would hurt Welch, but Houston gay activist Ray Hill disagreed. "I unfortunately believe that a lot of people are out there saying, 'Hurrah, Louie,' " he told United Press International.

One political stragetist added: "It is a real political spin ball. I don't think anybody knows which way it will turn.