AUSTIN, TEX. -- Nobody calls Texas a microcosm of America. And for that most Texans and most Yankees have the same response: Thank God. Everything American is here, yet it is all somehow enlarged and distorted. Texas doesn't invent things, it transforms them: cliche into reality and reality into myth. Which brings us to the 1990 campaign for governor between Republican Clayton Wheat Williams Jr. and Democrat Dorothy Ann Richards. All distorted. All American. All true. All myth.

Claytie and the Lady. This race was made for the silver screen. Steven Spielberg has $40,000 down on the Lady, with a supporting cast that includes Cybill Shepherd, Willie Nelson and Carol Channing, who belted out "Hello, Annie" in College Station the other night. Claytie (everyone calls him that, though his wife knows him as "Sweet Wheat") has $5.5 million down on himself. He wants the role of John Wayne.

"He's all that I'm not," Williams explained the other day. "He's 6 foot 4, I'm 5 foot 8. He's handsome. Look at me. Heh, heh, heh." And off went the big-eared little millionaire with the pumpkin-face grin, hopping onto his proverbial horse to chase after that gal Ann until Nov. 6 when, as he once so delicately put it, he plans to "head her and hoof her and drag her through the dirt."

Claytie really talks like that, which is both his boon and his bane. It helps him tap into the Texas myth, which is a mighty thing, but sometimes he taps a little too far. When he uses rodeo lingo to describe his campaign, or when he acknowledges he visited prostitutes across the border as a youth because "the houses were the only places you got serviced then," people start remembering that there was a time in Texas when women were treated like cattle, blacks were slaves, Mexican Americans were second-class citizens and many cowpokes were greedy, uneducated and crude.

That is the main reason polls show the race getting closer with two weeks to go. The latest Gallup poll shows that Richards has pulled within five points. Williams started in the lead, with money and the myth; he is finishing still ahead but vulnerable, largely because of his mouth.

Ann Richards has had a difficult role to play. Everything seemed to decline from the moment she reached national status for her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. For months her campaign appeared themeless. Urged to reveal her vision as governor, she once begged off, saying, "I didn't know I'd have to work for my lunch." During the Democratic primary, she had little time to create a coherent campaign: She was too busy fending off questions about whether she had used illegal drugs more than a decade ago.

But this Lady is no pushover. She is, as Texas's liberal laureate, Molly Ivins, once said, "tougher than a two-dollar steak." Richards seems to have a way of forcing male challengers to lose their cool. She got former governor Mark White so flustered in the primary that he said he'd have been happy to duke it out with her if only she were a man. That was the end of him. Last week, by questioning the ethics of Williams's insurance dealings, she prompted the front-runner to stage a calculated affront that backfired as well.

As the TV cameras whirred at a Dallas luncheon attended by both candidates, Williams first announced that he would create an incident, then walked over to Richards and said, "Ann, I'm calling you a liar today." When she responded by saying, "I'm sorry, Claytie" and stuck out her hand, he strode off, refusing the handshake. As he left the luncheon, Williams acted as though he were playing the role not of John Wayne but of Sir Lancelot. "A handshake is an act of trust," he said. "It came from the age of knights, when if you shook with your right hand, leaving your lance free, that meant you trusted that person."

Bad move. The next day telephone interviews in north Dallas, an upscale Republican stronghold, revealed that his confrontation was seen as less than chivalrous.

Events of that sort are part of what makes it so easy for the rest of the country to deal with Texas psychologically. Disillusioned with the course of politics in your state? Look to Texas for reassurance that it could be worse. Did candidates in your elections compete to see who could produce the most ghoulish commercials bragging about the felons they'd put to death? Did your politicians spend the most money in gubernatorial history? Do politicians tell rape jokes as a metaphor for bad weather where you live?

But don't feel too smug. Texas might not be a microcosm of American politics, but it is at least a distorted mirror. Clayton Williams and Ann Richards are not just provincial phenomena; their campaigns reveal something larger about the national Republican and Democratic parties.

Williams is the political kin of Ronald Reagan: good-natured, simple, evoking a past that never was, and talking tough with a massive defense buildup (the governor doesn't have a Pentagon, but the equivalent for Williams is to promise to build 60,000 more prison cells, which he says he can do by cutting $1.5 billion from the bureaucracy; some prison experts say it might cost $25 billion). And like Reagan, Williams has lived an adult life of luxury, yet has used television to portray himself as a regular guy.

One of the lingering images of Reagan is of him slipping up to his White House bedroom to watch early evening television while supping from a tray. This was one president who knew how to relax. But Williams is no piker in that regard. In August, during the heat of the campaign, he took off two weeks to go bighorn sheep hunting in Canada and was upset that his staff wouldn't let him stay the entire month. Throughout the year he has insisted on two consecutive days off each week, and on two of the five days he works he must be flown back to Midland for a morning of exercise at his rambling mansion. "What is the old saying," Williams says, grinning. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

Richards, like many national Democrats, spent much of her time trying to dispel negatives to prove she was in the mainstream -- she had not taken mood-altering chemicals for a decade; she did not favor an income tax; she was not opposed to hunting; she was not against an amendment prohibiting flag-burning; she was not soft on crime. It was not until the final month of the campaign that Richards, whose life story is both more poignant and more ordinary than Williams's, seemed to connect on a populist level by addressing everyday issues such as insurance regulation.

She has tried to portray Williams as a sleazy businessman, questioning some of the deals he made to save his financial empire during the Texas bust and the more recent involvement of his Claydesta National Bank in an enterprise that is now being investigated in which low-income car loan borrowers were required to purchase credit insurance. But Richards is no picture of financial purity herself. One of her closest friends in Austin is a developer with whom she had a $50,000 investment and for whom she wrote a letter on state treasury stationery urging his appointment to a commission determining highway construction near his land.

"I tell kids, do not think elected officials are exalted figures -- archangels. We're not," Richards said when asked about the new national emphasis on ethics. "We're human beings. But that's not what the public wants -- they want us to rise and ascend to Heaven."

Names and Places Williams and Richards were born within two years of each other during the depths of the Depression: Williams in Alpine in 1931 and Richards in a village outside Waco in 1933. From their public images, one might imagine that Claytie had the more hardscrabble beginnings. Wrong. His grandfather was a Harvard-educated lawyer. His dad, Clayt Williams, went to Texas A&M and was a county commissioner, landowner and historian. Richards's parents, descendants of poor farmers, did not receive higher education. Her dad was a delivery man for a pharmaceutical company. The family moved into Waco so Dorothy Ann could attend the big-city high school, where she was a star of the debate team.

In high school Richards dropped Dorothy and was known forever after as Ann. Dorothy sounded too countrified for a young woman chosen to carry the ambitions of an entire family. "I was going to take the world by storm," Richards once recalled. "I remember thinking very clearly: 'This is your big chance now, going to Waco High School. Striving for acceptance.' "

Williams, by the account of his mother, Chicora, was a free and easy kid who loved to dance and party and be with girls and was quiet only in church. He played fullback on the Fort Stockton football team and at halftime kept his uniform on and marched as a cornetist. His buddies called him Maria because one day, proud of his modest Spanish, he blurted out: "Me llamo Maria Pasquale Gonzalez."

Drinks and Drugs The pivotal events in the political lives of both Williams and Richards involved mood-altering chemicals. Williams claims the main reason he ran for governor this year was that he wanted to fight the drug scourge that had hit his own family. Richards was four years into her political career in 1980, serving as a Travis County commissioner in Austin, when her family and close friends forced her to face up to a drinking problem and put her on an afternoon flight to St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis for treatment.

Both events offered interesting possibilities and contradictions this year.

Williams and his second wife, Modesta, realized they were having trouble with their son Wade in 1986 when he was 14. He was kicked out of school and was a heavy user of marijuana. After trying several programs in Midland with little success, the Williams family enrolled in an expensive drug program.

Wade spent 14 months in the program and kicked the drug habit. His father emerged with a mission to fight drugs on a larger scale. One of the few specific issue papers he has offered is a 29-point plan to fight drugs. He wants the death penalty for drug pushers. He wants to send 20,000 young drug users to boot camp each year to learn "the joys of bustin' rocks." He wants to double the number of enforcement agents, suspend students on drugs, take away their driver's licenses, teach anti-drug education beginning in kindergarten.

Interviewed last week, Williams was asked how much personal responsibility he felt for his son's problem. Was the family the first line of defense against drugs? Were he and his wife distanced from their son? Did they spend too much time hunting down bighorn sheep in China and leopards in the Kalahari desert of southern Africa and not enough time with Wade?

"Well," Williams responded, "there's some responsibility, sure. But it gets these kids when they're in rebellion. They take a dare. They're in rebellion. I don't hold myself responsible. I don't beat myself over the head with it."

Asked what role the government could play in fighting drugs, he responded: "Oh, limited."

Richards celebrated her 10th anniversary of sobriety last week, right around the time Williams dismissed her claims that she was catching up in the race by saying, "She must be drinking again." This from a man who boasts that he can sing Mexican mariachis when "I've got a few beers in me." After all she went through during the primary, when reporters and opponents constantly raised the question of whether she took illegal drugs in the 1970s, Richards thinks she is immunized on the issue. Maybe. But she never answered the question, and an unanswered question usually arises again.

Harry Porco & the Rape Joke Richards is a born mimic. "There's nothing I like better than dressing up," she said. One of her favorite costumes used to be Harry Porco, a set of customized eyeglasses that featured a pig snout. After being elected state treasurer in 1982, Richards gained national recognition within the women's movement and used Harry Porco to spread her message, playing the role in boardrooms at Wall Street banks and at parties for friends and colleagues.

"Hi, I'm Harry Porco, president of Porco Electronics. ... I'm good to my girls. ... We were the first to put horoscopes up on our bulletin boards. ... You just give your girls a hug and a pat on the fanny and they'll work like dogs. ... I put big lights up in the parking lot to cut back on rape, but I told my girls, 'Watch how you dress. Some women are just asking for it.' "

A rape joke. But jokes depend on context: time and place and who is doing the telling.

The low point of Williams's political enterprise came on the morning of March 24 at a cattle roundup campfire at his 206,000-acre ranch north of Alpine. It was a cold, foggy, drizzly morning. Williams and his wife and their cowhands were preparing to round up and neuter cattle, with the Texas press corps there to watch Claytie in the saddle. Several reporters were warming up at the ranch house. Three sat around the campfire, watching Claytie, who was sipping coffee and spooning pinto beans from a blue tin cup. They were waiting for the weather to clear before starting the roundup.

R.G. Ratcliffe, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, said he was about to nod off to sleep. Williams was talking nonstop. "The guy's a real blabbermouth; he loves to hear the sound of his own voice," said Ratcliffe. Two or three times Williams told the reporters to relax: There was nothing they could do about the weather. He was making the same point once again when Ratcliffe and his two competitors realized that this time he was comparing the bad weather to rape. "The beginning of the quote we were never quite positive about," Ratcliffe said. "But we all heard 'rape,' and then 'sit back, relax and enjoy it.' It was a case of him keeping on talking until he stepped in it."

Williams's aides knew immediately that they had a problem. They tried to assert that his comment was off the record. No luck. Aide Bill Kenyon pulled Williams aside and said, "Claytie, we might have a firestorm here," but Williams did not seem to comprehend. He said he was just telling a joke about the weather. When it became obvious that the reporters intended to publish the remark, Williams grew testy. "Do you think I'm advocatin' rape?" he snapped at a woman reporter.

It was after that remark that Williams's aides began to be referred to as "handlers." It took them 24 hours to persuade him to apologize, and from then on they tried to protect him from situations in which he might embarrass himself. Asked last week whether he regretted the rape joke, Williams grinned and said: "If you talk about the weather, you sure get in trouble."

Claytie's Empire Every now and then when he thinks his assistants are being condescending, Williams will erupt. He might say: "I'm not stupid, you know, I did make several hundred million dollars!" And so he did. He lost about two-thirds of it during the bust, according to a detailed analysis by the Dallas Morning News. Ann Richards owns a house in Austin and has a few modest investments from money she received after her divorce from David Richards in 1984. Here are some of the things Claytie Williams owns:

One Sabreliner corporate jet, maroon and white, the colors of his beloved alma mater, A&M. One Beechcraft twin-engine turboprop, also maroon and white. A Jet Ranger Bell helicopter. A total of 11,600 cattle on 12 ranches in Texas and Wyoming that add up to 481,000 acres. A 10,000-square-foot mansion next to the Midland Polo Club with three carports, an indoor pool, guest house and wine cellar. Another house near Alpine with tennis courts and a pool shaped like the high, military boot that Texas A&M Aggie cadets wear. A 12,000-acre alfalfa and oat farm near Fort Stockton, for which Williams pumps millions of gallons of ground water a day, a pumping operation that some scientists believe is the main reason Comanche Springs, once a clear and clean watering spa, is now dry. Plus one bank and one oil company.

Every year Williams teaches a course at A&M on entrepreneurship. He calls it "B.S. 489." In the book "The Ultra Rich" by Vance Packard, Williams, who was known for watering down backroads near his West Texas homes so friends visiting in stretch limos wouldn't get dusty, offered this comment on life: "Money is how you keep score." To a gathering of business students at Rice University he said: "My goal was more."

Visiting Aggieland On a cold night in October, Richards took her campaign to College Station, Aggieland, Williams's home turf. The very sight of Kyle Field makes Williams tear up, as do the first few chords of the Aggie fight song. "I don't actually break down and cry," he noted. "I leak." But Richards was not crying. She looked about her in amazement. After traveling down George Bush Avenue and past the Clayton Williams Center, here she was in the Rudder Theatre facing 1,000 Aggies. They packed the aisles. If ever she needed a sign that her underdog campaign had at least a barking chance, this was it.

Ann Richards knows how to play a crowd. She acknowledged her days at Baylor. "See, you think we didn't have any fun at Baylor. But the truth was everything we did was against the rules or a sin, and we had a lot more fun." She delivered her standard pro-choice line on abortion, which always receives the loudest applause in her speech. Then she zeroed in on the rich Aggie running for governor. "Others look wistfully back," she said. "That era is gone. The good old days were never what they were cracked up to be. They exist only in memories of those who can't cope with the present or don't know what to do with the future."

One week later, Williams was at the corporate jet facility in Austin, waiting to fly for a visit to Aggieland himself. He was asked what his favorite century was. "Right now," he said without hesitation. "I've had a great life. Gosh, I've drilled oil and gas wells and dry holes all over the United States. I've built businesses. Had a good family. Had a whale of a good life. Traveled over most of the remote regions of the world. Done a lot of fishin' and huntin'. A whale of a life. Would still have it if I hadn't gotten into politics."