When Democrat Ann Richards declared three weeks ago that she had closed the gap on Republican Clayton Williams in the race for governor of Texas, the loose-lipped West Texas oilman dismissed Richards's claim with one of his less thoughtful quips: "She must be drinking again."

Richards not only was not drinking -- she is a recovering alcoholic who celebrated her 10th anniversary of sobriety recently -- she was right about the polls. A Gallup Poll released yesterday showed Richards within 5 percentage points of Williams, whose massive paid-television advertising campaign has kept him ahead from the beginning of the race.

The statewide survey of 1,005 Texans conducted Oct. 12-14 showed Williams with 45 percent and Richards at 40 percent, with 15 percent undecided. The Gallup Poll in September showed Williams 10 points ahead, 50 to 40 percent, meaning Richards has held steady while support for Williams diminished.

One factor in Williams's decline could be growing signs of public uneasiness with his cowpoke personality that finds him uttering regrettable comments such as the drinking crack.

Richards also has tapped into a wellspring of populist sentiment on the issue of insurance regulation in Texas by calling for tighter control of an industry where mismanagement and fraud appear to be at the root of a statewide collapse reminiscent of the savings and loan scandal. Her attacks provoked the insurance lobby to distribute a letter to member companies urging them to work for her defeat -- a letter that only enhanced Richards's newfound image as defender of the little people.