AUSTIN, TEX. -- Clayton Williams, the West Texas millionaire cowboy, has apparently turned one of the basic axioms of American politics on its head: It seems you can have too much money and can use it to buy too much television.

In searching for answers to the dominant question in Texas this week -- what happened to Claytie? -- independent political experts and consultants from both parties have settled on the rare notion that the Republican candidate for governor has overexposed himself.

"This is a case where familiarity has bred some contempt," said Republican consultant Bill Miller, offering his explanation for why Williams's 15-percentage-point lead over Democrat Ann Richards has diminished to virtually nothing. It's kind of hard to overexpose yourself in Texas -- it's such a big state with so many markets. This is perhaps an unprecedented situation. Williams came on at first like gangbusters and was warmly embraced, but now people are sort of disappointed in him and sick of him."

"This race will make the communications theory textbooks," said George Shipley, a consultant for Richards. "It is an example of what happens when you have too much. This is wretched excess. What Clayton Williams has essentially done is educate the public in Texas about who he is. They understand him now, and they don't so much like what they see."

Williams is still considered the favorite in the race by most Texas political experts, but he clearly has lost the momentum. A poll conducted by a Republican-oriented group in Fort Worth this week showed he and Richards in a dead heat, each with 38 percent of the vote. The latest Gallup Poll indicated he was five points ahead -- 45 to 40 percent.

All surveys indicate that it is not so much that Richards has caught up -- her numbers have remained steady -- as that Williams has declined week by week.

The notion that Williams has been on television too much makes sense only in the context that his public image has also slipped in other ways.

He has produced a series of gaffes, beginning last March when he made his infamous comment using rape as a metaphor for bad weather -- "if it's inevitable, sit back, relax and enjoy it." His decline in the polls has coincided with two more recent controversial incidents: When he joked that Richards, a recovering alcoholic, "must be drinking again" to think she was catching up, and when he called her a liar and refused to shake her hand at a Dallas luncheon.

"The manner in which Texans have become overfamiliar with Williams is because of his uncanny ability to stick his boot in his mouth everytime he makes a statement," said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American. "I think the slide began with the handshake incident. It was one incident too many, the accumulative effect of so many gaffes had finally taken its toll."

But Polinard noted that the Richards camp should not deceive itself with optimism. "There is something almost ironic about these polls and people talking about Richards closing the gap," he said. "The polls really don't show her gaining any strength at all, just Williams losing . . . . The other day some people down here were saying that if you could get on the ballot and change your name to 'None of the Above' you'd win in a walk."

Since he entered the Republican primary as a political novice last year, Williams has used television to build his image as the Marlboro Man, riding in from West Texas on his white horse to straighten out the bureaucracy in Austin and put the drug pushers behind thousands of new prison bars. He has spent nearly $17 million on television spots and run so many that the average Texan has seen him 80 times. That is more than four times the amount of exposure that is considered the saturation rate, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on politics and television at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It takes at least three exposures for the viewer to remember anything about an ad," Jamieson said. "But when you get over 20 exposures, one of two things will happen. Either even the less sophisticated viewers will suddenly get very analytical about the commercial's message, or alternatively everyone will become bored by it."

Roy Spence, an Austin-based consultant who is not involved in the 1990 races, argued that Williams's television exposure is a key factor in the public's perception of him as the incumbent.

"Claytie Williams was essentially elected governor two months ago in the minds of the public," Spence said. "So for all practical purposes he is the incumbent. With the anti-incumbency mood sweeping the country because of the budget problems and everything else, Williams has a real problem. He has now saturated the airwaves, and people are saying, 'Gosh, we've seen so much of him, he's kind of been there and we want somebody new.' That's sort of off the wall, but it seems to be what's happening."

Another factor at work in the Texas race is President Bush's declining popularity. Bill Miller, the Republican consultant for several local candidates around the state, said that in all of his races he is seeing the effects of a Bush backlash. "Even in heavily Republican suburban areas, I'm not seeing the numbers I should be seeing," he said. "That's reflective of the anti-government mood."

Williams's predicament has amused and puzzled consultants from both parties. Miller said he worried that "there's not really much Williams can do. There's no issue. He's the issue now. No one is discovering Clayton Williams. He's out there. The question is whether he should back off television and try to prevail with the residual good feelings that Texans might have for him."

"It will be a real challenge to see if Williams can deliver a message that is fresh," Spence said. "His situation is one that I've never encountered. Most of us have never had a candidate with enough money to be overexposed. I've never encountered that problem in my career. I'd like to have that problem."