TYLER, TEX. -- George W. Bush -- the Republican gubernatorial candidate who portrays himself as "a like-minded Texan" rather than an ex-president's son -- bounded across the newly mowed lawns here in "The Rose Capital of Texas" the other day, spiking campaign posters into the ground and greeting some new-found fans.

Woody and Doris Wood said they approved of Bush's firmness on crime. Alan and Janice Revier said they appreciated his family roots, his morals and the way he reflects their own political beliefs.

"I miss the conservatism in the White House," said Alan Revier, 42, a sales manager. "I also miss it in Texas."

This is a political season where anything might happen, even the election in Texas of the second Republican governor in modern times, and George Walker Bush, who is making his initial run at public office, believes the timing is perfect for his message against "the status quo."

His only obstacle, however, is formidable -- Gov. Ann Richards, the flamboyant Democrat who is well-known for her ability to marshal her forces for victory at the last moment.

Bush, 46, a crisp-shirted, fast-talking man who is part owner of the Texas Rangers, is a most complex figure in this perplexing race -- a guaranteed fight to the finish that has nonetheless struck longtime political observers as rather lifeless. He is the prep-school boy, the Yale graduate, who informs an audience, in his best down-home style, that he is "fixin' " to enter the final, critical phase of the race; the eldest son of a former president who insists he is more of a populist, more the son of his well-liked mother; the initially struggling candidate who now stands an even chance of defeating on Nov. 8 a governor whose poll ratings have been above 50 percent her entire term.

How this happened says as much about the current political climate in this state as it does about the candidates.

Texas, that big, once-dependable Democratic stronghold, is in a period of dramatic change. The second most populous state with 18 million people, it is also the breeding ground for a large conservative movement that has already resulted in two Republican U.S. senators and leaves old-time liberals like Richards in a new, vulnerable position.

It does not help that many Texans, who supported the elder Bush in the 1992 presidential race, are openly scornful of President Clinton, whom they see as a strong Richards ally. Nor have George W. Bush's methodical attacks on Richards's record as governor -- or "lack of record," as he puts it -- been ignored. In this political year, as many polls show a dead-even race, it is the incumbent -- popular though she is -- who seems in trouble.

"I think there are two popularity levels with Ann," Bush said. "There is a lot of popularity outside Texas -- Ann Richards is seen as an interesting soul, a big personality. But she also has a role of accountability. People want to see better results. And the issues are, and I mean this, if people are happy with the status quo, they should not vote for me. And I don't believe people are happy with the status quo."

"I gave a speech in Houston," he said, "and I heard myself saying, 'A year ago, people would say, "Nice mother, nice job, can't win." ' They wouldn't say that, but I could see it -- 'You? Against Ann Richards? Please.' About three weeks ago, if I had to put it in the same context, it would be, 'Nice mother, job's not so cool because of the {baseball} strike, and he's really going to win.' It was a precipitous change in people's attitudes. Towards me."

One of Ann Richards's well-aimed barbs throughout the campaign has been George W. Bush's lack of any kind of political record, beyond his assistance in his father's career. "I believe that to run for political office, you have to have more to go on than your daddy's name," she has said repeatedly, eyes blazing, proud of her 25-plus years in the trenches.

Democrats concede that Bush's campaign has been "tightly handled and very professional," to a fault. "They've been very careful to keep Bush out of too many public situations where his lack of knowledge on the issues would show," said Ed Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

"If talking about issues is saying code phrases and maliciously distorting the governor's record, if it's avoiding debates and dodging joint appearances, then I guess it's issue-driven. It's also a very consultant-driven campaign, very scripted, because he frankly has no qualifications to do the job. The guy's never even been on a private or public task force."

The campaign should have had the makings of a legendary Texas free-for-all, given Richards's quick tongue and the curiosity factor surrounding Bush. "At first," he said, "I think people wondered, 'What is Barbara Bush's son like?' "

But this has not as yet been a wingding of a political race. Perhaps it is bound to suffer in comparison with Richards's 1990 campaign, in which Republican Clayton Williams, an independent oilman from rural Midland with a propensity for delivering controversial cracks, drew an unfortunate analogy between accepting rape and accepting the weather. He also refused to shake Richards's hand at a public event, a snub that shocked many a courtly Texan.

The gaffes, offending a sizable chunk of female voters both Republican and Democrat, were thought to have cost Williams the election; the underdog Richards squeaked by with a 50 percent to 47 percent victory.

Bush denies that he studied Williams's failure in devising his own strategy, insisting that it is not his nature to want to sling mud. He can't help admitting, however, that he thinks Richards would love to goad him into a battle of insults, but he thinks she only harmed herself when she referred to him as "some jerk" at a political rally in July.

"I think the dynamics of this campaign changed when she called me a jerk," he said. "People didn't like that, and they began to say, 'Wait a minute.' If you base your whole reason for being on personality, and the personality goes kind of sour, well, I think it undermined the 'Reelect-Ann-Richards, she's-larger-than-life' feeling."

Still, Bush is aware that Texas political reporters are lamenting the lack of sizzle. "My response is, it's only dull because we're defining a new paradigm, which is talking issues."

In the national news media, the fascination has focused not so much on the Bush-Richards showdown as the story of the Bush Boys, George W. in Texas and Jeb in Florida, who are both involved in close races for governor. George W. says he understands. "I think it ought to be talked about because it is an interesting phenomenon," he said, but he denies that his father "is some sort of master puppeteer, scripting the whole thing."

Instead, in appearances in more than 100 cities and towns, he has taken pains "to show Texans that there is another George Bush." Always punctual, often beating reporters to news conferences, he keeps pounding out his "message" -- advocating more local control of schools, a tougher approach to violent criminals and an overhaul of the welfare system that would offer incentives "to encourage right behavior."

Now, he also adds a killdeer crack to his repertoire. On the first day of dove-hunting season last month, both Richards and Bush hiked to separate fields to impress reporters with their gun-handling skills. Richards shot three times in the air, a ceremonial gesture, but Bush actually bagged a bird -- not a dove, it turned out, but an endangered killdeer. He absorbed a tremendous amount of ribbing for the mistake and now introduces himself as a "killdeer slayer."

Democrats say the episode was more illustrative than amusing. "If we had a real discussion of issues," said Martin, "he'd be left holding the wrong bird."

The Bush campaign plane, meanwhile, has been nicknamed "The Fresh Breath Plane."

As Bush has winged across the state these many months, he has packed a tin of breath mints as well as that message forever attacking "the status quo." Whether in Runge or Hondo or Gun Barrel City, he has come prepared to get up-close and personal with any wavering voters.

On a recent morning, the King Air 200 had taken him to San Antonio, where he was pleased to count three standing ovations during his speech to the Chamber of Commerce. Everyone knows, after all, that San Antonio and points south belong to Richards. The next stop for the mint-popping candidate was Tyler, a city of 17,000, where the reception for a Republican challenger proved more convivial. Ever the appreciative visitor, Bush pointed out the neat greenhouses, the sandy soil that allows the roses to grow so lushly, the clear lakes full of bass -- just another Texan bragging about the special gifts of nature.

But Betty Kerruish of the weekly Bullard Banner isn't sure Bush is her kind of Texan. She fears, she said, that "he's making some claims he can't possibly do anything about." She wonders, for example, what he can really do about welfare, she wonders how much he can buck the federal government. Besides, she said, she can't help but like Ann Richards.

But as the days of the campaign wind down, as the Fresh Breath Plane flies on to Houston and Dallas and El Paso, it is still anyone's guess who will be the next governor of Texas. "It's like running a marathon," Bush said. "I'm on the 25th mile and I feel wonderful. I've still got that one last mile to go."

The "nice mother, nice job" line, with its updated ending, is one he employs a lot right now. The other oft-repeated line reflects the keystone of his highly calculated campaign: "You won't ever hear me say, 'Vote for me. I'm a Republican.' It's, 'Vote for me. I'm a like-minded Texan.' "