By the old rules Gov. Mark White should be a cinch for reelection in Texas. He is a Democrat in a traditionally Democratic state, running -- thanks to plunging oil prices -- in hard economic times. He sponsored and in 1984 pushed through the legislature a popular education reform package, with teacher competency tests and a no-pass, no-play rule, and stuck with it under fire.

Yet White has trailed badly in public polls, and nearly got into a runoff despite weak opposition in the Democratic primary. The same day, William Clements, who was elected governor in 1978 and lost to White four years later, won easily against two tough opponents in a $9 million Republican primary. Republican turnout was 550,000 -- tripled from 1978 -- while Democratic turnout was 1.1 million, down from 1.8 million eight years ago. In the post-primary Texas A&M poll, White had only 33 percent to Clements' 47 percent -- a devastating result for an incumbent.

Low oil prices are nothing new for Bill Clements. "When I was 17, and graduated from Highland Park High School" -- in the highest-income part of Dallas -- "my father shared with me the news that he was broke -- broke flatter 'n a fritter." It was 1934, in a decade when oil prices went down to 10 cents a barrel, when the Texas Railroad Commission limited production to hold up prices. Clements, a class officer and editor of the annual, had to turn down a football scholarship to the University of Chicago. He got on a bus for Sinton, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, where the still waters broil under the summer sun, and got a job in the oil fields. He sent $100 a month back home to his family and lived on $1 a day.

In 1935 his father got a job and Bill went to Southern Methodist. He worked summers in oil fields and drilling rigs, and after the war he entered into partnership -- "I never had five cents of capital" -- in the oil drilling business. His firm, Sedco, drilled wells for six of the majors all over the world. This is a business where hustle counts: Sedco got contracts because "I can do it quicker and better and cheaper" than the majors. "I worked 35 years," he says, "on the basis of performance." Fifty years after Bill started supporting his family, for their share of Sedco the Clementses got some $200 million.

Clements speaks bluntly and comes up with pungent aphorisms that are impolitic not because they misstate the truth but because they come uncomfortably close to it. But his consultants argue that the bluntness that hurt him in 1982 will help him this year. "He's made the tough decisions and followed through," a young woman says in one ad. "Mark White," says Clements in another, "refuses to call a special session of the legislature and face the tough decisions." State revenues are below estimates, and White has ordered a deep across-the-board cut in his budget. But Clements argues that revenues are up 38 percent over four years (partly because of the education tax increase), and that spending is out of control. With tough discipline, he suggests, there will be plenty of money for programs people want. He attacks White for cutting higher education spending. Clements, who knows how government decisions enabled entrepreneurs such as him to build the oil industry, is calling for more discipline but not for less government.

Government and politics have been Mark White's business most of his adult life, and he has risen by beating political heavyweights -- James Baker (for attorney general in 1978) and Clements. His family moved from Henderson, in humid, vegetation-choked east Texas, to Houston in 1942, to the modest Montrose section, two miles from downtown and no farther from the edge of the city. His father was a shipfitter in a Liberty Shipyard, and after the war sold oil tools and real estate -- "one of the few people in Houston who didn't get rich." White says he decided to become a lawyer on a vacation trip to Williamsburg.

After college and law school at Baylor, a Baptist school in Waco, he joined in a small Houston law firm. A senior partner, Calvin Guest, was backing Dolph Briscoe, a conservative south Texas landowner running for governor in 1972. White did too. The Connally forces were for Ben Barnes, the liberals were for Frances Farenthold, local Republicans were growing in strength, and so Briscoe had almost no support in Houston: "We had to rent a car to get him at the airport." When Briscoe won, he chose Mark White, at 32, to be secretary of state, and White moved out of a new house in Houston to the career that has taken him, via two multicandidate primaries and two tough fall campaigns, to his high-ceilinged office in the south wing of the reddish-pink sandstone capitol in Austin.

He speaks rapidly and with the optimism of governors everywhere. "Texas is in a wonderful position," he says, criticizing Republican national energy policy now and arguing that it will drive oil prices back up: "Go buy some oil right now. It can't go much lower." But the future he sees is not just oil. "We combine everything from agriculture to high tech," he says, and "we're now attractive to productive people, not just heavy lifting."

He proclaims that "education is going to be the oil and gas of the future." Education reform, plus the highway and water bills he has passed, "have laid the foundation." Yet White's pollster admits that the turmoil caused by the education package -- from taxpayers, football coaches, teachers -- has cost White votes, and his popularity lags far behind that of the package for which he claims credit -- but which Clements mostly supports and says he laid the groundwork for. White is eager to debate Clements and charge that he "never put his money where his mouth is." But he is currently playing defense, even on the issue that should work best for him.

On policies, on the direction of the state, these two very different Texans take similar positions. In temperament each embodies, in exaggerated form, the strengths and weaknesses of his party. In what Peter Hart calls "the year of character" Texans must decide not so much between more and less government as between two different personal styles -- a choice that, in the third-largest state, and between these two individuals, is of national significance.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.