AUSTIN, Tex. — When Texas GOP gubernatorial front-runner Clayton W. Williams Jr. was told recently that his Democratic foe, Ann Richards, claimed to have poll results showing that she was closing on his lead, he retorted: "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again."
His remark outraged the supporters of Richards, who is a recovering alcoholic. But beneath their indignation was a thinly concealed satisfaction: Clayton Williams had shot his mouth off again.
The episode illustrates the degree to which the campaign in this politically crucial state is dominated by negatives--a focus on the foibles and flaws of both candidates, leaving substantive issues receiving scant attention from voters.
"This is a real spitting-match," says Tom Perdue, an Austin hospital official who attended a Williams speech here last week on the war against drugs. "They don't have campaigns like this in California," added Perdue, who moved here last year from Mill Valley.
A Gallup Poll taken two weeks ago showed Williams in front by 10 percentage points, helped by surprisingly strong support from Latinos and conservative Democrats in East Texas. But it also showed nearly half of those interviewed would vote against both candidates if given the chance.
Democrats and Republicans disagree about which side is most to blame for the high muck content of this campaign, and over whether Richards has a serious chance of overtaking "Claytie," as Williams says he likes to be called.
But on one point there is little disagreement: The trend in the campaign so far spells bad news for the Democratic Party's future, not only here in the Lone Star State but all around the country.
Unless the Democrats can recapture the governor's office in Austin, they will lose an opportunity to dominate the reapportionment process in this fast-growing state, which is expected to gain four House seats after the 1990 census is completed.
They also will lose the chance to use gubernatorial clout to boost the prospects of their 1992 presidential standard-bearer to carry this state, without which the Democrats have never won the White House in this century.
Finally, a defeat here in Texas--which is still digging out from the past decade's energy bust--would suggest that the Republicans are stealing the Democratic Party's thunder: the ability to convince voters that Democrats are better at providing government services.
There are several reasons that Williams has amassed a substantial lead in his competition with Richards, who first came to national attention by quipping at the 1988 Democratic convention that George Bush had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
For one thing, helped by $6 million of his own money, he has outspent Richards by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1--$15 million to her $7.8 million. Then too, Texas--like most of the Sun Belt--has been steadily becoming more conservative and more Republican.
But perhaps the most important reason that Richards is still an underdog four weeks before Election Day is the kind of campaign she has chosen to run.
"She just hasn't given people a lot of reasons to vote for her," says fellow Democrat Gary Mauro, the state land commissioner--although he still believes that Richards has a chance to win.
Independent analysts say both candidates have been avoiding reality. "The real issue in this state is money, and nobody wants to address the imbalance between revenue and the state's real needs," says University of Houston analyst Richard Murray.
Both Richards and Williams claim that by relying on efficient management and increased economic growth, they can govern the state without a tax increase. Williams has been the more vehement on this point.
"I've said I will veto not only an income tax but any tax," Williams reminded reporters here last week. "What's more important is that Republicans in the House will sustain that veto. We are going to force the state of Texas to live within its means."
Richards, finishing her second term as state treasurer at 57, likes to stress her opponent's inexperience. Williams has never held public office.
"He has spent millions of dollars to buy television time to become governor of the state of Texas with no qualifications whatsoever," Richards told a rally in front of the brick courthouse in Georgetown, about 25 miles north of Austin.
"What's he going to do when they have a hearing on the floor of the Senate or the House," she jeered, "send a 30-second video?"
Indeed, Williams, who is also 57, revels in his role as an outsider.
"I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a politician," he told the audience here during a speech on drugs. He says he was drawn into politics by the discovery that his teen-age son had become dependent on beer and marijuana.
Williams contends that by relying on the lessons he learned in building his fortune in ranching, oil, gas, banking and telecommunications--and by depending on the homespun values of Texas' legendary past--he can devise fresh solutions to the state's complex problems.