AUSTIN, Texas -- We're having a splendid political primary season here in Texas, featuring several loopier-than-usual players and one total gooney bird named John Worldpeace.

On the Democratic side for U.S. Senate, the two heavy-hitting, well-financed contenders are Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas and Rep. Ken Bentsen of Houston. So, of course, a high-school civics teacher who's never been elected to anything named Victor Morales is in the lead in that race.

Meanwhile, just to further confuse everybody, another Morales, former attorney general Dan, is running for governor, which might cinch the Hispanic vote for him, except his opponent is Tony Sanchez, a rich banker from Laredo. Worldpeace (he had his name legally changed) is also in that race, and his idea of contributing to his namesake seems to be spreading as much nastiness about Sanchez as he possibly can. Voters keep getting unidentified calls that turn out to be financed by Worldpeace asking them, approximately, "Did you know that Tony Sanchez is a blue-bellied, full-blooded liar, thief and child molester who runs on all fours and has the IQ of a grape?" I'm not exaggerating by much.

Meanwhile, the poor rich Sanchez clearly had no idea what he was getting into when he acceded to the pleas of Democrats desperate to find a self-financing candidate with a Hispanic name. He is up against one of our strangest politicians, the Incomprehensible Dan Morales.

This Morales left office under a stygian cloud involving some back-dated papers giving a cut of the enormous attorney's fees in the $17 billion tobacco case settlement to a friend of his. Sanchez, who may yet develop into viable politician, rather sharply reminded Morales during their last debate that he could still be indicted for that one. Since Morales has been baiting Sanchez about an old case of money-laundering through his bank, it was nice to see Sanchez on the attack.

Even by Texas standards, Morales never was much of a Democrat. He always ran on being pro-death penalty, which everybody is -- but you don' t have to run on it. His most memorable moment as A.G. was taking an anti-affirmative action decision from the Fifth Circuit against one Texas school and applying it statewide. A Harvard-grad Hispanic should be gold in this state, but I don' t recall ever seeing Morales hit a lick for the people. His frequent tacks to the right seemed designed to further his career by some plan I could never grasp, unless he meant to become a Republican. So here am I, a devout populist, supporting a rich, conservative banker with no political experience for governor. Sigh. It must be a Texas primary. Actually, this isn't nearly as weird as the time I had to support Bobby Locke for governor. Bobby's platform was challenging Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya to hand-to-hand combat in the Gulf of Sidra. At high noon, next Fourth of July, on the Line of Death. Locke trained for the bout in his backyard swimming pool in San Antonio. "Only one of us will come out of the water alive," said Locke, which sounded like a no-lose proposition to me. Besides, you should have seen the other candidates.

In the Senate race, the Wrong Morales factor (or maybe Dan is riding Victor's coattails, it's hard to tell) is bollixing up the works.

In a state where we once put the Wrong Don Yarbrough on the Supreme Court by mistake, causing no end of embarrassment since he turned out to be a crooked crackpot, the potential for confusion in similar names should not be underestimated. (Texas voters also like famous names: For years we had a state treasurer named Jesse James, but then we elected Warren G. Harding to the post.) Both Ron Kirk and Ken Bentsen are terminally moderate: Kirk is black, which is pretty amazing for a Dallas mayor, and Bentsen is the nephew of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen's not a bad guy, but I think Kirk would be a better candidate.

Political insiders can mutter all they want about it still being "too soon" to run a black statewide in Texas (Soon? Please!), but I think Kirk actually has a better chance of getting elected. He has a great personality -- he's cheerful, kind, funny and obviously, as a favorite of the Dallas Establishment, plenty conservative enough for this state. Bentsen has the personality of wallpaper.

One smart argument I heard a money guy make for Kirk is if we elect him, our junior senator will immediately be one of the most powerful players in Washington, the new star of national black politics, which --- given that both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have worn out their welcome --- would be a pleasant change.

Besides, if Texas D's put up a slate led by a black and an Hispanic, it will be a free media bonanza, and given the state of the party' s coffers, free is about all we can afford.

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.