In the race to win Phil Gramm's Senate seat, the Republicans have the luxury of being able to sit back while the Democrats fight it out for their party's nomination.

While Attorney General John Cornyn has only token opposition in his bid for the GOP nomination, the Democratic contest is a five-way race with three main candidates: former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, seeking to become the first black senator from Texas; Ken Bentsen, the Houston congressman with a gold-plated family name; and Victor Morales, the high school geography teacher who crisscrossed the state in his pickup in a 1996 bid to unseat Gramm, who is now retiring.

The contest leading up to the March 12 primary saddles the Democrats with financial, political and physical burdens Cornyn does not have.

"They've got to treat the primary as a general election," said Austin political consultant Bill Miller. "They can't play a game and wait, or they won't see November."

While the Democrats spend their money on advertisements and race around the state, Cornyn will be able to take notes on his opponents, build up donations and rest up for the fall.

A Texas Democrat has not held a Senate seat in nearly a decade. The stakes are especially high this time because whoever wins could tip the chamber's delicate balance in favor of Republicans or Democrats.

Morales has led in some recent polls, but political analysts expect the nomination to go to one of the heavyweights, Kirk or Bentsen. The full-time teacher lacks money and staff and can take out the pickup only on weekends.

"I'm a fighter and I still have some fight in me," said the 52-year-old Morales, who wants to clean up campaign finance, funnel more money into education and improve drug rehab programs in prisons. "My only Achilles' heel is: Are the people of Texas going to know I'm running?"

Kirk, 47, was the businessman's candidate in Dallas, bringing a $420 million sports arena to the city and helping to revitalize a blighted part of town.

Bentsen, 42, is the nephew of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who served from 1971 until 1993, when he became treasury secretary under President Clinton. Bentsen touts his intimate knowledge of Washington.

The Senate race generally has been cordial so far.

Bentsen has made health care his priority, particularly improving prescription drug benefits, and said Social Security and Medicare trust funds surpluses should not be used to pay for other government functions.

Kirk speaks broadly about protecting Social Security, improving schools and limiting the amount of money poured into the war on terrorism if it undercuts other programs.

Kirk is fund-raising relentlessly and tapping donors from states such as New York and California.

As for the Bentsen campaign, the strategy is "raise whatever you can and you spend whatever you raise," said spokesman Eddie Aldrete.