FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Forcing Bob Dole to defend Republican turf, President Clinton charged confidently through Texas on Friday determined to become the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to capture the state.

``We can win in the state of Texas!'' he declared.

Clinton kept a grueling three-city schedule, bouncing from handshake to handshake in Texas-sized crowds and picking out familiar faces from his days in neighboring Arkansas.

``Boy, I love this,'' he told a teacher he remembered from Ashdown, Ark. An early rally in Longview, Texas _ about 100 miles from the Arkansas border _ drew at least 5,000 people to the intersection of Center and Tyler streets, in front of a quaint corner drug store.

Clinton reminded the crowd that he grew up ``a lot closer to Longview than Washington.''

The Dole campaign said Clinton's record was a far cry from what Texans wants.

``They say Texans like things big, but I don't think they'll take a shine to Bill Clinton's big liberal, big spending, big government ways,'' spokeswoman Christine Martin said.

The focus of the trip was east Texas, home to yellow-dog Democrats who abandoned the party for Ronald Reagan and could tip the scales this year.

Paul Garmon, a lifelong Democrat who has strayed at times to Republicans, smiled from beneath his cowboy hat when asked why he came to the rally.

``I'm an 80-year-old Democrat, son. And that man there has done a better job than anybody since Roosevelt,'' said Garmon, his white shirt speckled with tobacco juice. ``He's our kind of Democrat.''

In 1992, Clinton lost Texas and its 32 electoral votes to George Bush by 4 percentage points, with Texas businessman Ross Perot drawing 22 percent of the vote. Perot, who siphoned more votes from Bush than Clinton, is less of a factor this year.

Still, Clinton exuded confidence about his prospects this time, reminding supporters in Fort Worth: ``Four years ago, I had a pretty high hill to climb. I had to run against two guys from Texas.''

The president looks surprisingly strong in an increasingly conservative state with a Republican governor and two GOP senators. Recent polls indicate the race is a dead heat, a Texas horse race.

That does not bode well for Dole.

Lagging by more than 20 percentage points in New York and California, the Republican almost certainly needs a big-state victory out of Texas to secure the needed 270 electoral votes. Clinton could win without Texas.

Waltzing across the state with Clinton was Victor Morales, a Democrat in an uphill battle to defeat Republican Sen. Phil Gramm in Texas. Morales, a political novice, created a ruckus this week by accusing Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla of forgetting his Hispanic heritage, calling him a ``wanna-be white'' and a coconut.

Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry said the president ``obviously considered the remarks inappropriate'' but had accepted Morales' expression of regret. Forgiveness came easy because the White House hopes Morales' campaign _ win or lose _ will mobilize Hispanic voters and get a key Clinton constituency to the polls.

The president chided Gramm _ sarcastically referring to him as ``a trained economist, they say'' _ for denouncing the 1993 White House economic plan that raised taxes. Pointing to improved economic statistics, Clinton said, ``Now you know. Our approach is right.''

The trip was planned weeks ago so Clinton could attend a $1 million fund-raiser in Houston.

As the date approached, Clinton noticed that he trailed Dole by only 6 to 10 percentage points and ordered his team to schedule a ``Texas day'' filled with campaigning.

With his national lead over Dole holding relatively steady, Clinton has felt more freedom in recent weeks to campaign for Democratic candidates. He stumped Friday for several Texas hopefuls.

Four of the candidates are running for seats given up by Democratic incumbents. Nationally, there are 29 Democrats giving up House seats in November, including 19 in the South, and Republicans are targeting every one.

Another Democrat, freshman Rep. Kent Bentsen, is in a tough race in an east Texas district that gained Republican voters after the state's tumultuous redistricting.

Democrat Nick Lampson hopes to unseat freshman Rep. Steve Stockman, one of 74 GOP congressmen swept into office by the Republican landslide.

Clinton mentioned them all, though he continued his pattern of not specifically calling for Democratic control of Congress. ``We've got some great candidates running in east Texas,'' he said.