LAREDO, TEXAS Tucked into the backseat of a black Range Rover, the candidate is on the phone with a local reporter. And he is causing trouble. "I want to propose a debate," announces Dan Morales, who careened into this year's Texas governor's race in the final hour of the final day of filing. Playing to the sense of neglect prevalent among South Texans, the former state attorney general informs Tricia Cortez of the Laredo Morning Times, "It's time to show that we take the border seriously." And, in Morales's opinion, a local showdown (televised, of course) with his Democratic primary opponent, Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, would provide the ideal showcase--especially "since one of the candidates is from here." In fact, Morales adds, with great feeling, "It would be an insult to Laredo voters if any candidate would not agree to come before the voters." The two campaign staffers along for the ride start to laugh.

Morales's phone call is just one small incident in a primary battle that is growing uglier and uglier as the March 12 polling day approaches. Morales calls his opponent a fat-cat know-nothing who apparently "believes the office of governor is for sale," and he reminds Democrats that Sanchez was one of George W. Bush's elite Pioneer fund-raisers. Sanchez, for his part, has suggested that Morales can't speak "good Spanish" and that he got into Harvard Law School only because of affirmative action (which, to be fair, Sanchez enthusiastically supports). And aides to both candidates are fond of veiled references to the other's scandalous (and maybe even felonious) past. "There are a number of documents related to questionable business practices of Mr. Sanchez," says Morales communications director Jim Moore (who, making a bizarre situation even more bizarre, was fired from the Sanchez campaign in November). Sanchez advisers cite the "cloud hanging over" Morales, who "you don't know whether he's gonna get indicted tomorrow or the next day" for mishandling the state's 1998 tobacco settlement. Nasty primary battles always upset party leaders, but this one particularly horrifies Texas Democrats because it is between two Hispanics. After the Dems' disastrous drubbing on Election Night 1998--which left them without a single statewide officeholder--party bigwigs woke up and began crafting a strategy for redemption in 2002. The game plan? Maximize minority turnout by assembling a "rainbow ticket." The party establishment lined up behind a black Senate candidate (former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk), an Anglo candidate for lieutenant governor (former Comptroller John Sharp), and, most importantly, a gubernatorial contender with a south-of-the-border surname to excite the swelling ranks of Tejano voters (Tony Sanchez). The fact that Sanchez boasts a fortune of around $600 million--$30 million of which he reportedly pledged to put at the Dems' disposal--only sweetened the pot. A "coordinated campaign" office was up and running by last summer. And then Dan Morales came along, messing up the whole gorgeous mosaic. Party power brokers counted on Hispanics being so grateful that a member of their community was being handed the gubernatorial nomination that they would cheerfully line up in support. As Sanchez himself put it last September, "Issues are important, but they are not as important as the fact that this is an opportunity to vote for one of your own." Well, turns out that issues may wind up mattering after all--that not all Tejanos think alike, that not all Tejanos like Tony Sanchez, and that some Tejano politicians have personal rather than simply communal ambitions. In other words, identity politics has been trumped by plain old politics. And it's glorious to behold. The skunk at the garden party. The tornado on the trail drive. The burr in the saddle. Pick your Texasism. To Democratic Party officials, Morales is about as welcome in this year's primaries as a frog in the guacamole. For months he made noises about running for Senate, raising the specter of an anti-Hispanic backlash among black voters if he defeated Kirk in the primary. Back in November The Dallas Morning News reported that party leaders, including representatives from both the Sanchez and the Sharp campaigns, were pressuring Morales to cede the field to Kirk. So, in a way, Dems got what they asked for when Morales did a last-minute pirouette into the governor's race on January 2. Not that they saw it that way: One state senator accused Morales of "disregarding the welfare of the Democratic Party." Another representative accused him of "throwing a tantrum." From the party's perspective, Morales is more dangerous than an Enron exec with a shredder. If Sanchez loses on March 12, he has vowed not to give a cent to the Morales campaign, leaving the chronically underfunded Democrats to pick up the slack. Increased Hispanic turnout for the high-profile gubernatorial primary could boost Kirk's primary opponent, Victor Morales (no relation to Dan), which could result in two Hispanic nominees and no African Americans, or throw the race to a third (Anglo) candidate, Ken Bentsen. Alternatively, the brutality of the primary could leave whomever wins so damaged and the Hispanic community so divided that everybody stays home in November, giving Republicans another big win in the general elections. How exactly did Democrats get themselves into this mess? By now, pretty much every political watcher in the state can recite the backstory: In 1998 a wildly popular Governor Bush helped drag an otherwise unremarkable Republican slate to victory. But while W. whipped his hapless Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro, other Dems came within spitting distance of winning. Paul Hobby, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, and Sharp, the party's pick for lieutenant governor, both lost by less than 2 percent of the vote. The Republicans' margin of victory, most agreed, was the below-average Democratic turnout that year, especially within the Hispanic community. In 1994, with Dan Morales running for reelection as attorney general, 33.8 percent of Hispanic voters went to the polls; in 1998 that number fell to 26.7 percent. Running the figures in his head, Sharp determined that to become lieutenant governor in 2002, what he needed was a nice set of Hispanic coattails to ride. A marketable Tejano at the top of the ticket would draw enough Hispanics to the polls to give Sharp that extra boost--even if the gubernatorial candidate himself didn't actually win. Thus, with '98 campaign posters still littering the countryside, Sharp set out on a recruiting mission. One of his first (unofficial) feelers reputedly went out to former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, still popular despite that unfortunate 1994 snafu involving sex, lies, and the FBI. As the story goes, Sharp contacted Cisneros on the very day Cisneros had been ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for his sins. Sharp said (or at least is said to have said): "Henry, I've had relatives who paid bigger fines for picking up deer off the side of the road. Come back to Texas and run for governor." Cisneros asked, "Could I win?" To which Sharp responded, "Nope, but I could!" Are the details of this Texas political tale 100 percent accurate? Don't bet the ranch on it. Nevertheless, the joke around Texas political circles became that John Sharp was on the prowl for a "Nope, but I could!" gubernatorial candidate. Drafted by Sharp, Cisneros, and top party strategist Kelly Fero (now head of the "coordinated campaign"), Tony Sanchez came equipped with a few clear negatives. He doesn't much enjoy public appearances and did little campaigning until Morales's challenge forced him to. Back in December, Texas political operative Bill Miller told the Austin American-Statesman that the inside buzz among disappointed Democrats was that Sanchez "is a candidate without the skill set that you normally expect.... He doesn't have a willingness to engage. He doesn't have a passion for the issues, and he is not working very hard." There are also a couple of question marks in Sanchez's professional past, most notably the collapse of his S&L, Tesoro, during the highflying 1980s. Environmentalists also grumble about how, after a stint on the state Parks and Wildlife Commission, Sanchez finagled a permit to drill for natural gas in a state park. Then there's the little matter of his big-money support for Bush. (Sanchez and his various business interests have enriched Bush's political coffers by more than $320,000 since 1995.) As for the candidate's own political views, nobody really knows, and he does his best to avoid specifics. A devout Catholic, he is personally pro-life, though he promises to uphold the right to choose. He talks vaguely about reforming state funding of both education and children's health care, but he is generally assumed to be your run-of-the-mill moderate-to-conservative Texas Democrat. Not that Dan Morales is Mr. Politically Correct either. A former prosecutor, Morales carried a strict law-and-order outlook into the attorney general's office, angering minority groups who felt his office prosecuted death-penalty cases too enthusiastically. Morales also alienated environmentalists by siding with property-rights advocates in development disputes. But by far his gravest ideological offense was his broad interpretation of the 1996 Hopwood court ruling, which banned race-based admissions and financial aid policies at Texas public universities. On the trail, Morales energetically defends his position with the Republican-sounding argument that he is against racial quotas--which utterly delights Sanchez, who, on matters of affirmative action, is a die-hard paleoliberal. Indeed, Sanchez has pledged to go after Morales on this rare clear-cut point of disagreement, and he intends to get personal. In a January speech to the state's AFL-CIO convention, Sanchez charged: "I don't like a fellow who gets to the top through affirmative action and picks up the ladder behind him." On an even more personal note, the Sanchez campaign (though perhaps not the candidate himself) likes to remind voters of the ongoing federal probe into whether Morales tried to inappropriately funnel hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's successful tobacco litigation to an attorney friend. Morales's people, in turn, fire back with ugly innuendo about Sanchez's business practices at Tesoro (he wound up paying the government $1 million to ward off a lawsuit), including a Mexican drug cartel's alleged use of the S&L to launder drug money during the 1980s. (Sanchez denied any knowledge.) Such squabbling between two serious Hispanic candidates may give state Dems the vapors, but it has dramatically upped both state and national interest in the race, and it is expected to boost turnout as well. Publicly, party leaders have abandoned talk of a coordinated anything and now say that a tough primary is evidence of the party's vibrance. (One Dem even tried to convince me that, in fact, there never was an organized attempt to preset the ticket.) And while some Hispanic leaders wring their hands over their community's lack of political discipline, others delight in it. "This idea that we should all be thinking the same and stop fighting is an old, outdated interpretation that we need to move beyond," Tatcho Mindiola, head of the Mexican-American Studies Program at the University of Houston, recently told the Houston Chronicle. If nothing else, Democrats will send a battle-tested candidate into the arena with Republican Governor Rick Perry this fall. (Sanchez in particular needs to learn to take a punch.) And who knows? With ethnicity off the table, Sanchez will have to at least pretend to talk substance--which means that sometime between now and March 12, an issue or two might even get discussed. All of which could make this sordid mud fight the most edifying thing to happen to Texas politics in years.