The state legislature meets for 120 days every two years, but such is attitude toward government in Texas that one capital wag wistfully observed, "We wish it met for two days every 120 years."

Indeed, there is popular sentiment here that limited state government has helped to make Texas what it is today - the third most populous state, which also enjoys a low unemployment rate, a booming economy and a general level of happiness greater than the national average, according to a public opinion poll.

No matter that the Capitol Weather Service was warning Houstonians this week that "drifting industrial smoke and other factory emissions" would sharply reduce visibility: After all, Austin had just been declared the cheapest city to live in the United States. And Beaumont had just been named by Money magazine as the best place in the country to get a job.

"That's no accident," says ReP. Jack Brooks, a Beaumont Democrat, as he taps a newspaper article on the city's new status. It has to do, he says, with limited government - and with his friend Dolph Briscoe, the state's lowprofile (some say limited) governor for the past six years.

Yet despite the jobs, the economy and the happiness factor, Briscoe finds himself in a tight, bitter and expensive race for the Democratic nomination for four more years. So close in the race and so doubtful the outmore governor Preston Smith, may draw enough votes in tomorrow's primary to force A runoff between Briscoe and his real opponent, Attorney General John Hill.

Hill, an activist attorney general who has taken on some of the state's powerful interest groups, presents Texans with the possibility of a visible, assertive governor who argues that government can be better without being bigger. He says that the state can no longer afford a governor like Briscoe, who is frequently absent from the statehouse.

He points out that Briscoe, chief executive of a state that produces 35 percent of the nation's domestic gas and 38 percent of its oil, has failed to emerge as a national leader on energy matters or on other issues affecting his state and region, Briscoe is unfavorably compared to more prominent governors of lesser states - David Boren of Oklahoma, Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, George Busbee of Georgia. "He speaks for no one but himself," says one Washington analysts, who also adds, however, that Briscoe is on favorable terms with the White House.

Organized labor, which has seen its representative appointed by Briscoe to state boards and commissions, is divided over the choice. Some blacks support Briscoe for the jobs he created with $500-million-plus in highway funds from a $3 billion state surplus: others, who felt more money should have gone into education, support Hill.

In recent days Briscoe has put Bill on the defensive with shock adverstisements saying Hill's various campaign promise could lead to higher taxes or even a state income tax, which Texas does not now here. Hill, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative like Briscoe, is not stumping the state with an oversized VETO stamp to illustrate his long-standing opposition to a state income tax.

But the Briscoe attack has been severe enough that last Friday, Hill cut new TV commercials for the final week of the campaign to address the tax issue. Some political observers feel, however, that Briscoe was once trailing and may have actually turned the race around with the ploy.

Strangely enough, Briscoe found himself in trouble apparently in part because of high taxes. For while this state's tax burden ranks about the lowest in the country, rising property tax and utility tax bills have stirred protests around the state.

And in a state where voters have traditionally expected their state officials to move up and then move on, Briscoe is seeking unprecedented 10 years as governor - no one has served more than six. (Briscoe served one-two-year term before a constitutional amendment provided for a four-year term term).

Farmers, a traditional source of Briscoe strength in rural areas, were impressed with Hill when he rushed to a farmers' protest on the border and served as intermediary between local officials and jailed farmers while Briscoe was distantly silent Mexio American leaders seeminglu favor Hill for his investigation of police killing of Hispanics and his calls for a tougher state civil rights law.

"I pledge to carry forward a program of fiscal responsibility, of living within our income without new or additional state taxes," says Briscoe, who has borrowed $873,000 from Texan banks to help fund his $3 million campaign.

The loan was co-signed by friends and supporters of Briscoe-oilmen, bankers, farmers and other businessmen.

Briscoe, a rancher in Uvalde, whose land produces natural gas prolifically, is waging what will apparently be the costliest gubernatorial campaign ever in Texas. But it is not an unheard of sum for a statewide race in Texas, where, for example, El Paso is nearer Los Angeles than it is Texarkana and between the two Texas cities are tens of thousands of rural voters who turn out in high proportion and who are ignored by politicians only at their peril.

After enthusiastically working a crowd in Beaumont with his wife, Janey, the other night, Briscoe told 600 to 800 cheering supporters: "The other candidate promises beyond the income of this state, promises a path disastrous to other states - a pattern of digging deeper into the paychecks and savings . . . that has been so disastrous in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts."

Briscoe offers revenue and tax projections from the state comptroller, Bob Bullock, as evidence that Hill can't deliver on campaign promises of higher teacher pay and tax relief for farmers, ranchers, property owners and utility customers without new or increased taxes.

However, Hill's backers accuse Bullock of juggling his projections to support Briscoe. Earlier in the campaign, Bullock, a close Briscoe ally, publicly told the voters they had a choice between a good governor and a "son of a bitch."

It's been that kind of campaign.

In the Republican primary, former state party chairman Ray Hutchison is competing with a former Defense Department official, Bill Clements, for the gubernatorial nomination. The contest has generally put a strong party man (Hutchison) against a well financed relative newcomer (Clements).

Neither is given much of a chance in November against Briscoe or Hill.