With Duke in Senate race, old passions rend La.

October 01, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW IBERIA, La. -- Crisscrossing Louisiana in an unmarked Chevy van, Senate candidate David Duke does not so much campaign for votes as conspire for them.

"Need your support," he murmurs to a blond woman he encounters at the Sugar Cane Festival in New Iberia, deep in Cajun country.

"You got it," she confides, never breaking stride.

Pollsters say Mr. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and, since last year, a Republican member of the Louisiana Legislature, stands a substantial chance of forcing Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston into a runoff in Saturday's election.

If that happens, it would be a triumph for Mr. Duke's race-based candidacy and a serious setback for Mr. Johnston, a three-term incumbent. It would also be damaging to the national image of the Republicans, who want to be the party of Southern whites but without the stigma of racism.

"It hurts us if he makes the runoff," said Kelly Johnston of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It'll give Democrats a chance to point to David Duke as a Republican nominee."

In truth, no one -- including Mr. Duke -- knows just how large the Duke vote will be. Or whether Mr. Johnston can gain a majority of votes cast in the state's unique open primary and thus win re-election, in spite of a widespread belief that he has lost touch with the state.

Opinion surveys indicate that there is a large undecided vote, which Duke backers take as a sign of subterranean support.

"A lot of people are afraid to stand up in public and say it," admits Daren Hood, 26, a Lake Charles insurance salesman and Duke enthusiast. "But when they get behind that curtain, they're gonna vote for him, even though he's as radical as he is."

With a laugh of apparent approval, Mr. Duke tells a campaign rally of a political expert's remark that "you can't poll David Duke, because he flies below radar."

What is evident, however, is that Mr. Duke's code-worded assault on affirmative action and the welfare system has tapped a rich vein of white resentment, particularly among working-class and middle-income voters.

"You're the monkey wrench we need to stop the machine," a thirtyish man in a red T-shirt and blue jeans tells Mr. Duke during a weekend campaign swing across the bayous and cane fields of southern Louisiana's rural parishes.

Voter cynicism and anti-politician sentiment is on the increase nationwide this year. But the level of frustration and even outright disgust is higher in Louisiana than any other state, except Massachusetts, according to national campaign strategists in both parties.

It was in Massachusetts two weeks ago that insurgent John Silber's appeals to anti-black prejudice helped gain him an upset victory in the Democratic primary for governor, a fact not lost on Mr. Duke. "If Silber can win in Massachusetts, Duke can win in Louisiana," the 40-year-old candidate predicted.

"If Duke didn't have that baggage, he would probably be elected," says Susan Howell, a University of New Orleans political scientist whose polls say Mr. Duke is running almost even with Mr. Johnston among whites.

That baggage, his racist background, is the subject of a chilling Johnston campaign commercial that uses footage from a Klan rally in the late 1970s -- a flaming cross, hooded Klansmen and Mr. Duke, in a business suit with arm upraised in a fascist salute, solemnly chanting "white victory."

Senator Johnston, who avoided all mention of Mr. Duke for months, has said the purpose of the commercials is to expose his opponent's racist beliefs and to refute "the fiction" that Mr. Duke's Klan activities were a youthful indiscretion.

But the senator himself has been embarrassed by disclosures, contained in a Sept. 19 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that he sought to exploit anti-black feelings early in his own political career.

Running for the state legislature in 1963, almost a decade after the landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, Mr. Johnston proclaimed, "As the father of three small children, I have a particular interest in preserving segregation and our Southern way of life."

Through a spokesman, Mr. Johnston has argued that he didn't push for segregation as an elected official. And while he has never been regarded as a special favorite of blacks, his Senate voting record on civil rights generally tracks that of other moderately conservative Southern Democrats.

Mr. Duke, quick to spot an opening, is airing a radio spot that accuses Mr. Johnston of hypocrisy on the race question and describes the senator as "an arch-segregationist, until it was no longer fashionable to be one."

While it is not clear how many voters are aware of the disclosures about Mr. Johnston's past, the revelations could make some whites feel more comfortable about voting for Mr. Duke.

They could also depress enthusiasm for the senator among blacks, who cast about one-fourth of the vote statewide and were a decisive factor in the 1986 election of Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux.

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