AUSTIN,TEXAS -- The disappearance of Clayton Williams' once mighty lead for governor over State Treasurer Ann Richards is almost all his fault, a self-inflicted wound born of political ineptitude. Week-old independent statewide polls show a dead heat, even though Richards comes over to fellow Texans as hardly less unpleasant and abrasive than she did nationwide as the 1988 Democratic keynoter. Voters simply are not sure they can take the open-mouthed multimillionaire rancher-oilman as governor.

"Governor Williams?" a Richards TV spot asks sarcastically. Big-business backers called him a "goofus" after he waved a broom in President Bush's face at a rally last week. His campaign lives in fear that the exposes, helped along by Richards' aides, of alleged illegal activities by his West Texas bank may explode in the campaign's closing days. Williams' advantages are so overpowering that insiders in both parties guess he probably will win after all. But his own advisers admit, in the words of one, "we've got to teach the people to love Claytie again."

That he might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is a case study in campaign mismanagement. It takes a leap of imagination to see the Republican candidate for governor of Texas losing this year. Rising preference of the state's white voters for the GOP reduces Democrats to chancy reliance on Hispanic and black turnout.

What's more, Richards emerged from the unbelievably vicious Democratic primary with negative ratings exceeding 50 percent (and holding) and the unanswered question of whether she ever used illegal drugs. Liberal and feminist, she has avoided substantive issues in a campaign whose relentlessly negative tone guaranteed continued low public esteem.

Considering public revulsion toward the governing establishment, Williams -- such a neophyte he thought the governorship was a part-time job when he decided to run -- might seem ideal against insider Richards. But when he bought himself the nomination with millions worth of TV spots, Republican old pros predicted what has come to pass. His own aides say he inflicted irreversible harm on himself months ago by comparing rape and the weather ("if it's inevitable, relax and enjoy it").

But even after that gaffe, he could have recovered had his managers ignored a Richards who was still battered and discredited after the Democratic primary. To keep her core liberal constituency, she could not match Williams' strong positions reflecting Texans' revulsion against crime and taxes. Williams, however, just couldn't resist responding in kind to TV attacks crafted for Richards by Washington-based Robert Squier, a master of the poison video. The turning point came nearly a month ago when the television eye captured Williams refusing to shake her hand at a public event while his aides looked on in horror. A rancher, who is a friend and supporter of Williams, told us he was so upset that he and his friends wanted to send a message to their candidate: "Cowboys always treat a woman like a lady."

But Claytie cannot let Ann alone. Again to the horror of his handlers, he made this attempt at humor when she claimed to be closing the gap in the polls: "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again." With recovering alcoholic Richards celebrating her 10th year of sobriety, Williams' nasty crack on camera was incorporated into Squier's commercial collecting his gaffes, which ignores Richards and ridicules Williams almost entirely with his own words.

This week Claytie Williams set out to try to make himself lovable again. In Lubbock, he began a tour of "main streets" to reassert basic values and show there is really a difference between the candidates. A new TV spot comparing him ("anti-tax," "businessman," "conservative") with her ("pro-tax," "politician," "liberal") ended his skid and sent him rising at least temporarily in the overnight tracking. Waiting so long to make this point explains why Williams has himself to blame if conservative Texas elects its most liberal governor ever.