The Race from Hell

March 17, 1991

Without an election the Republican Party just added a governor to its ranks. Louisiana's Buddy Roemer last week switched parties.

Governor Roemer was never that much of a Democrat. On his first vote in the House of Representatives in 1981 he threatened to oppose the election of Tip O'Neill as speaker. He later threatened to change parties, and he voted with the Republicans more often than all but a handful of the so-called Boll Weevils.

Several of those conservative Dixie Democrats have switched parties in recent years. One, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, is being talked of as a presidential prospect. Another ex-Democrat ran a respectable race against an incumbent in last year's gubernatorial race in Arkansas. Still another is likely to be the Republican nominee for governor in Mississippi next year. There are ex-Democrats all across the South. Many but by no means all are neo-conservative in the sense that they actively seek black votes.

Governor Roemer also seeks re-election this year. In Louisiana, candidates run in a non-partisan primary. The two top candidates, regardless of party, face off if neither gets an absolute majority the first time. There is expected to be a runoff this time between Governor Roemer and former Gov. Edwin ("Laissez les bons tempes rouler!") Edwards, the fairly liberal, flamboyant ladies' man and gambler who was ousted from office in a close 1987 race by Buddy Roemer (with help from the U.S. attorney, who twice took Mr. Edwards to trial on corruption charges before the campaign).

This expectation is not a certain one. Another Republican running is David Duke, who, despite his American Nazi and Ku Klux Klan past, got 44 percent of the vote running against Democratic incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston last year. One of the reasons national Republican Party officials have been urging Governor Roemer to switch is their hope they can avoid the embarrassment of having Mr. Duke as their standard bearer again.

This gumbo looks zesty from afar, but locals are concerned. "I call this the race from hell," says John Maginnis of Gris Gris, Baton Rouge's political tabloid. An Edwards-Roemer-Duke race does have devilish potential. A straight Edwards-Roemer contest would be a good test of old-fashioned Southern Democratic populism versus new-fashioned Southern Republican conservatism. But first, they've got to beat David Duke.

George Bush can help. He apparently plans to keep an air base in Louisiana open as a show of gratitude to the Roemer switch. But he needs to do more than that. He needs to spend some of his newly won popularity by personally campaigning not only for Governor Roemer but against David Duke and all he represents.

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