The faltering economy in America's No. 1 energy state is taking a toll on Texas Gov. Mark White, whose popularity seems to be free-falling alongside oil prices. For the first time, polls this week showed the incumbent Democrat trailing all three of his potential Republican opponents.

Pollster Richard Murray characterized his latest survey results, published today in the Houston Chronicle, as evidence of an "Anybody but White" mood in the electorate. "People are worried like hell about their economic future," Murray said. "They expect [White] to do something."

According to the statewide poll of 715 registered voters, if the gubernatorial election were held today, White would lose to former governor Bill Clements, 54 percent to 36 percent; to Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) 44 percent to 40 percent, and to former representative Kent R. Hance, a Democrat turned Republican, 45 percent to 39 percent.

Clements, who was upset by White in 1982, is favored in the May 3 Republican primary, with Hance and Loeffler battling for a runoff spot.

White's strategist, Dwayne Holman, dismissed the poll, noting previous occasions when Murray's polls showed White losing races that he eventually won. "In 1978 he had us losing the primary for attorney general, and in 1982 he had us losing a primary for governor," Holman said. "It's reassuring to know that the same guy who said we'd lose those races is saying it again. The truth is we ain't."

According to Holman, White's polls show him holding a narrow lead over Clements, with Hance and Loeffler "barely in the ballpark." White's opponents in the primary, including a relative of former governor Dolph Briscoe, are expected to receive between 30 percent and 40 percent of the vote.

Since late February, when he called for an oil import fee, White has tried to use the oil slump issue to his advantage.

Today, White's aides sent letters to 350 oil industry leaders in Texas claiming that national Republicans are treating the economic woes of the energy region with scorn and disdain. Included in the letters were copies of Republican congressional bulletin that called the energy price slump a "GOP windfall."

"The response has been incredible," said Mark McKinnon, White's campaign spokesman. "These oil-patch guys can't believe what the Republicans are saying about them. They're angry. And these are people we haven't heard from before."

White's next move in oil politics comes Tuesday in Dallas, when he convenes what is being billed as a summit meeting of energy state governors. Ten governors were invited; it was unclear how many will attend. White said he hopes the session will end with a unanimous resolution seeking some form of tariff on imported oil.