LOS ANGELES -- Four Hispanic politicians with competing visions of the future are vying in a court-created district to become the first member of their ethnic group to serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in this century.

After the collapse of a behind-the-scenes effort by Democratic powers in the Hispanic community to unite behind a single candidate, a spirited race has developed in the sprawling First Supervisorial District of eastern Los Angeles County.

The election is scheduled Jan. 22 in a new district created by U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon after he determined that the five county supervisors had discriminated intentionally against Hispanics when they drew new district boundaries in 1981.

The election could determine the political direction of the nonpartisan board, on which conservatives now hold a 3 to 2 majority, and the outcome could be a national portent in this pivotal state.

The success of Sen. Pete Wilson (R) in winning more than 40 percent of Hispanic votes was a key to his victory over Dianne Feinstein (D) in this month's gubernatorial election. Republican strategists here said the ability of GOP candidates to win support from traditionally Democratic voters is vital to the party's long-term future.

Los Angeles County has an estimated 3 million Hispanic residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens. There are 177 elected Hispanic officials in this vast county, slightly fewer than one-third of the 572 in the state.

But while Hispanics are familiar faces on city councils and in the state legislature and congressional delegation, they are underrepresented on county boards of supervisors, which in California are powerful entities with purse-string power over key educational, health and penal services.

The entire state has only seven Hispanic supervisors, and Los Angeles County has had none since whites gained control of the political system here in 1875.

That is about to change. With a week remaining before the filing deadline for the election, voters in the new First Supervisorial District are assured that they can choose among two liberal Democrats with conflicting personal styles, a centrist Democrat who entered the race last week, a moderate Republican who has long served as an aide to a white conservative supervisor and three or four minor candidates with personal followings.

All of the candidates are of Mexican-American descent, the principal component here of a Hispanic population that also includes significant numbers of people of Central American origin. All call themselves "Latinos." The candidates offer a wide spectrum in their stands on issues and political styles.

Principal contenders include:State Sen. Art Torres, 44, a collegial legislative veteran of 16 years who was outspoken in his opposition to spraying of residential neighborhoods to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly and is emphasizing environmental issues.

The San Gabriel Valley, a large portion of the new district, includes huge landfills in which three-fourths of the county's waste materials are buried. They have polluted ground-water supplies and created the possibility of an environmental disaster. Torres is a liberal on most matters but conservative on criminal-justice issues. Los Angeles City Council member Gloria Molina, 42, probably the most liberal and certainly most combative of the candidates. She said she would provide "an active voice for people who have intentionally been left out of the process for a long time." Molina has earned a reputation on the City Council and before that in the Assembly as a fighter reluctant to compromise. This is considered both her largest asset and biggest drawback. State Sen. Charles Calderon of Whittier, 40, who entered the race last week at the same time that his ally, Rep. Matthew G. "Marty" Martinez (D), withdrew. Calderon also emphasizes that the San Gabriel Valley is being used as a "dumping ground" for waste materials. He was elected to the state Senate in a special election last April.

Previously, he demonstrated his independence in the Assembly as a member of the "gang of five," maverick Democrats who cooperated with Republicans to challenge the leadership of longtime Speaker Willie Brown (D). Sarah Flores, 52, the only Republican in the race. She served for 18 years as an aide to retiring conservative Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who represented the First District before it was redrawn by Kenyon's order. Flores ran first among 10 candidates, including Schabarum's handpicked successor, Gregory O'Brien, in a June primary before the district was redrawn. She faced a runoff with O'Brien that was forestalled by Kenyon's decision.

Flores said she knows more than the other candidates about how the board works and is sensitive to issues of child care and crime prevention. Several Hispanic political leaders, including Calderon, give her a good chance to finish in the top two Jan. 22 but less chance to win a runoff in a district where registration is 80 percent Democratic.

The candidates and political analysts here said the election's outcome is almost impossible to assess. While the district contains 1.8 million residents, 70 percent of them Hispanic, it has only 360,000 registered voters. Turnout has been estimated at anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent.

Whoever prevails, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), one party that brought the suit creating the district, contends that the Hispanic community already is a winner.

Hailing the vigorous competition for the new supervisorial seat, MALDEF attorney Richard Fajardo said creating the district itself has made long-neglected Hispanics a power to reckon with in Los Angeles County.

Special correspondent Jill Walker contributed to this report.