Sulphur, La. -- WHEN David Duke held a campaign rally here the other day about 120 people filled the banquet room at the Holiday Inn to listen attentively and cheer him on.
This isn't 20,000 people packing Madison Square Garden but it ain't chopped liver either. The turnout on a bright spring 'N afternoon in this small town just west of Lake Charles was impressive enough to suggest that reports of the political demise of David Duke may be premature.
The conventional wisdom among political professionals and activists here seems to be that Duke is doomed to be an also-ran in the primary for governor Oct. 19 -- despite his success in drawing 44 percent of the total vote and 60 percent of the white vote against Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston last November.
The theory is that last year Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan official and now a Republican state legislator, became the repository for all those voters who had some reason they couldn't swallow Johnston. This time, the thinking goes, there are many alternatives -- Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Democrat newly minted as a Republican; Democratic former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, Republican Rep. Clyde Holloway and at least two other Democratic candidates with small but identifiable followings.
"I think that argument is absolutely specious," Duke says. "Any time I'm in a race, it becomes a referendum on me. I've got a third of the vote right now, I can guarantee. I think that's wishful thinking on their part."
In fact, no one knows how much support Duke can produce. Outdated polls showed him with about 15 percent, but the 1990 polls vastly understated his vote. And now, he contends, "They voted for me once and lightning didn't strike."
Duke's potential depends on how successful he may be in projecting the message that he is, as he puts it, "the only different candidate" in the campaign -- meaning the one who operates outside conventional political structures. He is looking ahead with relish to debates in which he can remind the electorate that both Roemer and Edwards are members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "They represent the same failed philosophy," he tells his approving audience here.
Duke's message is not directly about race as much as it is about empowerment of those who feel politically alienated. But it is also clear that racial resentments against such things as affirmative action are the core of his appeal. When he talks about the "rising welfare underclass," no one thinks he means white Baptists. When he argues that welfare mothers should be
"responsible for their lives" and for their "sexual conduct," no one imagines he is talking about white women in New Orleans. When he talks about getting "drugs out of the public housing," the implication is clear.
And when he talks about "equal rights for all" rather than affirmative action and about "freedom of choice" rather than "forced busing," his all-white audience knows just what he means. "That's right," a listener says. "There you go," says another.
Duke's message is beguilingly benign and simple. When he urges welfare reform, he says, "I'm not talking against anybody, I'm not talking against blacks." Instead, he insists, he is talking about changes that would "help" taxpayers as well as those who really need it. When he talks of requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work, he contrasts the welfare mother with the retired teacher who can't afford to run her air-conditioner during a hot Louisiana summer.
Duke doesn't shy away from his controversial past which he is now convinced has been out on the table long enough to mean JTC very little. "I don't have any skeletons in my closet," he tells his audience here. "I don't even have a closet."
"People voted for me on issues," he tells a visiting reporter, "not my past." Don't forget, he says, Ronald Reagan made the transformation from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. All David Duke has done, he says, is moderate his views. And, he adds, "Most people are good-hearted and they want to live in the present and the future, not the past."
Just how far Duke can go as the "different" candidate is anyone's guess. The Louisiana "open primary" system means all candidates of both parties run against one another and, if no one gets more than 50 percent, the two leaders meet in a runoff.
Orthodox political calculations say Duke won't make that runoff. But he is preaching a message many voters want to hear because they agree with it.