AUSTIN, Texas -- You can already tell it's going to be a perfectly glorious political year in Texas. Four months out, and we've already got one gubernatorial candidate accusing the other of being a drug dealer, naturally causing the maligned party to in turn describe his opponent as a raving liar. This is going to be so much fun.

A grand old slugfest is developing in the race between Gov. Rick (Goodhair) Perry and his Democratic challenger, Tony Sanchez, and it shows all the signs of becoming a fall classic in Texas' toughest contact sport.

For starters, this is a backward, upside-down race. Normally we have Republican outsiders with no government experience running on their credentials as bidnessmen, a la in Bill Clements and George W. Bush, while claiming, "My opponent is nothing but a professional politician." This year we have a Republican incumbent we didn't vote for -- as Sanchez's ads keep reminding us -- who is a career politician being challenged by a Democratic businessman. But it could be a bad year to be a successful bidnessman, even in Texas.

The biggest bone of contention to date is Perry's ad pounding on alleged drug-money laundering through a Sanchez thrift, Tesoro Savings and Loan, which later got a federal bailout when it failed for unrelated reasons.

"A federal judge confirmed Sanchez's bank wired millions of laundered drug money to Manuel Noriega's Panama," reports the ad. Now that's stretching it, even by Texas standards. The Sanchez people naturally screamed, "Foul!" Quite loudly. The judge cited in the Perry ad as proof of Sanchez's bad conduct is U.S. District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth, who says the Perry ad is "absolutely false" and "out of context," particularly as the ruling cited was on a different bank, not owned by Sanchez.

"The Justice Department said Tony Sanchez had a choice: to cooperate with law enforcement or the drug dealers. Sanchez chose the drug dealers," claims the ad. Actually, Sanchez had no choice but follow the law, which he did.

Perry's camp then produced attorney Dan Hedges to support its implication on money laundering on the same day, reported the Dallas Morning News, that Hedges' wife Adele was interviewed by Perry for a judgeship. Perry explained that it was a coincidence.

This, in turn, brings up the interesting role of coincidence in the life of Gov. Goodhair. Last summer, the Guv appointed an Enron executive to the state's Public Utilities Commission and, the next day, Perry got a check for $25,000 from Ken Lay. He explained this, to everyone's satisfaction, as being "totally coincidental."

The unhappy Enron exec later had to resign after dauntless sleuths in the press discovered the governor's office trying to cover up -- with White Out -- the fact that the appointee had accidentally shot a whooping crane some years back. While on a goose hunt. Don't tell me Texas politics isn't more fun than all that boring stuff in civics textbook -- and besides, your civics textbook gets edited by some of the dippiest people in Texas politics.

It was also totally coincidental, of course, that Perry collected $1.2 million in campaign contributions from special interests during the 20 days at the end of the session when he had to decide whether to sign or veto bills. Totally coincidentally, Perry then unleashed a blizzard of vetoes on the very same bills those special interests wanted killed. Amazing, isn't it?

The latest remarkable development has Perry comparing himself, in what must, objectively speaking, have been a moment of complete insanity, to Sam Houston. "I think I've met the old Sam Houston test of leadership: 'Do right, risk consequences,'" said Goodhair. This caused so many political mouths to drop so far open, oral surgeons in the Austin area were inundated by a deluge of dislocated jaws.

Meanwhile, lest you think of Sanchez as a mere punching bag, his own ads are no powder puffs. Try this:

"Reeling in a five pound bass. Priceless.

"Your baby girl's first ballet. Priceless.

"Winning the championship in overtime. Priceless.

"An appointment to chair the Public Utility Commission: $25,000.

"A veto of important health care legislation: $766,000.

"The burden of paying the highest insurance rates in the country: $1,000,000.

"There are some things money can't buy.

"But for vetoes and other favors, there's Rick Perry."

Darn, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

This is the summer of our discontent -- the stock market is dropping like a rock, the corporate world is riddled with crooks, the Washington politicians are hand-in-glove with the crooks, terrorists threaten, John Ashcroft is in charge of civil liberty, a baseball strike looms and, except for the miners, there's nothing but gloom in Mudville.

Except here in the Lone Star, where it's back-scratching time at the old corral. If I felt any better about it, I'd drop my harp plumb through the cloud.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.