WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III switched to the Republican Party yesterday, touching off celebrations by the party's leaders, including President Bush.
In private, the Republicans' primary emotion was gratitude. Buddy Roemer's decision to run for governor this year as a Republican was, at the least, a short-term answer to their persistent prayer, "Lord, protect us from David Duke," the former Ku Klux Klan leader who will be running this fall as a Republican for governor of Louisiana.
President Bush issued a statement in which he "welcomed" Governor Roemer to the party and invited him to the White House next Monday.
"This gives the Republican Party a respectable face in Louisiana," conservative author Terry Eastland said yesterday.
For most of his adult life, Mr. Duke made his living as a Ku Klux Klan official and peddler of Nazi propaganda, conspiracy theories and hate literature. Two years ago, he surfaced in another incarnation -- as a Republican.
Running in a white district outside New Orleans, after cosmetic surgery and a blow-dried haircut and with a new, less vulgar appeal to the fears and racial prejudices of working-class whites, Mr. Duke was narrowly elected to the state legislature.
Last year, he challenged U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat, and received nearly 44 percent of the vote -- including more than 60 percent of the white vote.
National Republican leaders denounced Mr. Duke repeatedly, even endorsing Mr. Johnston. But Mr. Duke's Republicanism was made an issue by Democrats all over the country.
Mr. Roemer's polls show him running stronger as a Republican, and when word reached Washington that he was considering a switch, the GOP was galvanized into a full-scale recruitment blitz.
He spoke with Mr. Bush last week and received frequent calls from prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill who knew Mr. Roemer from his days as a leader of the "Boll Weevils," Southern Democrats who broke ranks and supported President Reagan's legislative agenda.
Yesterday, the GOP lobbying paid off.