Flying over east Texas with its pockets of 20 percent unemployment, eight-term GOP Rep. Jim Collins explained that achieving full employment for Texas and the nation is his top priority. His determination to create jobs is one reason he decided to run against Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a popular conservative Democrat seeking a third US Senate term.
As the small plane bounced in the turbulence kicked up by the patchwork of plowed fields and petrochemical plants 3,000 feet below, Mr. Collins blamed current economic problems on years of liberal domination in Washington. He called Senator Bentsen ''the most active liberal in the South,'' voting, he said , against only 2 out of 145 spending bills over the past 10 years.
With enough conservatives in Congress, Collins insisted, ''then we can strengthen our entire economic system.'' His first goal is to pass a balanced-budget amendment.
According to Collins, needed jobs will result from a balanced budget. Reduced government spending, he said, will allow interest rates to drop enough to let the private sector begin borrowing, hiring, and expanding once again.
Gov. William Clements, a Republican spending $11.8 million to fight off a $6. 4 million challenge from Texas Attorney General Mark White (D), is equally determined to convince Texans that cutting back government spending is the only road to job creation and economic recovery. The governor's crowds never fail to applaud what has become his theme song for this election: ''Texas is the job capital of the country. . . . The national recession hit Texas last, hit Texas least, and will leave Texas quickest.''
Attorney General White's answer is that the governor is driving needed jobs out of Texas by allowing ''spiraling utility rates'' and by penny-pinching on education programs needed to improve the Texas work force. White says, ''There has been progress made in Texas, but Bill Clements has fought it every step of the way.''
Senator Bentsen is equally critical of Republicans, dismissing Collins as a ''right-wing extremist'' who could never be effective in Washington. Bentsen predicts that Reagan administration policies ''may send interest rates up again'' following an eve-of-election dip. If unchecked, Reaganomics may lead the United States ''into an even deeper recession,'' he warns.
Bentsen calls for an increased focus on economic problems. He specifically calls for more spending on education and advocates tax incentives to encourage the private sector to retrain mature workers. Surrounded by steel mills and petrochemical plants hit by layoffs, he promised new legislation to enforce international trade agreements in order to protect American jobs.
Clearly, putting Texans back to work has become the key campaign issue for this Sunbelt state, which Ronald Reagan won by a 55-to-41 percent margin in 1980 .
Democrats blame Reaganomics for Texas's record 8.4 unemployment rate. They charge that their Republican opponents are ignoring a deteriorating economic situation with serious human consequences.
But Texas Republicans are not apologizing or attempting to distance themselves from President Reagan. Instead, they answer that Texas is already showing signs of leading a national economic recovery.
Still, enough of a recession-aided swing back toward this state's Democratic past could deny Republican Governor Clements a second term and save Senator Bentsen from being upset by his Republican challenger. But both races are close, observers say.