Texas Gov. Bill Clements and his challenger, Attorney General Mark White, met here in what was billed as their first debate.

It should have been called the Friday night fight.

Trading insults and swapping charges of incompetence, the two waded past a series of questions, and showed not only that civil discourse is unlikely in this gubernatorial campaign, but that a rhetorical fog will obscure any attempted discussion of serious issues.

Clements called White incompetent and a liar.

White said Clements had bungled the governorship and had allowed his campaign to take "an ugly turn."

With his campaign lagging in the polls, White turned into the aggressor Friday night with a surprisingly sharp attack on Clements in his opening statement in the regionally televised square-off.

Ignoring the camera, the attorney general looked straight at the governor and accused him of "some of the dirtiest tactics I've seen in Texas politics" for dredging up a drunk-driving charge against White 19 years ago when he was in law school.

The story of the arrest, which White acknowledge as true, appeared in a campaign newspaper printed and distributed by the Clements organization.

White used the paper to launch his most effective attack of the campaign.

His eyes riveted on Clements, White called the paper "garbage, and that's where the people of Texas are going to throw it."

From then on it was charge and countercharge, attack and no retreat, and the angry sparring carried over into the post-debate comments.

"There will be no mudslinging in my campaign, governor," White said as the two stood together afterward.

Clements laughed, then snarled that "for nine months, you've been saying the meanest things."

"If you can't stand the heat, Mark, then get out of the kitchen," Clements said as his aides sought to pull him away from his opponent.

The two had discussed the Texas economy, prison overcrowding, water shortages and their records.

Clements fired at White throughout the debate, calling him "an incompetent lawyer" who has lost bing cases for the state and a man who played loose with the facts of his own and the governor's records.

But White's opening statement put Clements on the defensive, and he was pressed into an oblique explanation of why he had allowed the drunk-driving story to be used in his campaign newspaper, The Texas Spectator.

Clements tried to laugh if off by saying, "I enjoy reading it... We did the same thing in 1978."

The governor, urged by advisers to be low-key in this opening debate, sought to discredit his opponent with hard-edged responses, calling most of White's statements "a gross misrepresentation of the facts."

In one exchange over prison crowding and a federal lawsuit against the prison system, Clements said of White, "His imagination is running amok."

At another point, White, noting that 500,000 are out of work in the state, said that Time magazine had written that Texans "have gone from bragging to begging."

Clements responded, "In the primary, one of Mr. White's opponents referred to him as Mr. Pinocchio of Texas politics. Undoubtedly his nose is growing longer here tonight."

Asked about his reputation as an abrasive, sometimes arrogant politician, Clements said that his wife, Rita, "doesn't think so.... But I can't stand incompetence... in a high-level office in this state."

In October, Clements and White will meet for a debate televised statewide. To judge from this performance, it may have to be billed as the "Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Candidates."