Ex-Democrat may win GOP a red face in Louisiana On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 26, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Baton Rouge, La. -- NATIONAL REPUBLICAN leaders were overjoyed when Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana left the Democratic Party to join them. Roemer was quickly rushed to the White House to be embraced for the cameras by President Bush.

But not all Louisiana Republicans are as enthusiastic about their new best friend. And their reluctance to accept him points to a fundamental division within the party over whether it should soften its Jack W.Germond &JulesWitcoverhard line on touchy issues to reach more black voters and white moderates.

Right now the wise money here says that when all is said and done, Roemer will win a second term as governor this fall. Under Louisiana's open primary system, all candidates of both parties run against one another Oct. 19 and if no one gets 50 percent, the two leading candidates meet in a runoff three weeks later. The expectation is that Roemer will end up in the runoff against -- and defeat -- the redoubtable Edwin W. Edwards, the colorful Democrat who has been governor for 12 of the last 20 years.

This is no boat ride for Roemer, however. The other Republicans in the primary include David Duke, the onetime Ku Klux Klan leader who polled 44 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston last November, and Rep. Clyde Holloway, a devout conservative who refused to swallow a deal that would have greased the way for Roemer.

Although Duke probably will get more votes than Holloway, it is the latter who poses the most immediate problem for Roemer. Holloway, says Roemer, is a factor "among party hierarchies" -- meaning the Republican establishment. "It complicates the easy coalition behind me early," he argues. In practical terms, it could make it more difficult for Roemer to capture the official party endorsement to be voted at a convention in June. That endorsement carries little real weight -- Roemer and Duke both will run whether or not they get it -- but it could represent an official stamp of approval for the newly Republican Roemer.

There is no mystery about the sticking points. Although he has been consistently conservative on fiscal issues both in Congress and the governorship, Roemer has taken moderate -- or, by standards here, liberal -- positions on such issues as affirmative action and abortion that both Duke supporters and some hard-core Republicans cannot swallow. The most obvious case was when Roemer vetoed a bill that would have effectively banned all abortions and tried to pass a less Draconian measure of his own. "They ran over me in the legislature like I was a pebble on the street," Roemer says.

But Roemer is also one of those Republicans, like Jack Kemp, who favors broadening the base of the Republican Party by trying to enlist black voters and thus doesn't share the hostility to affirmative action that is so pervasive among Republicans and such a boon to David Duke. The differences on these race-related issues, Roemer says, is "a classic tension point" within the party.

At this early stage the campaign here is turning on more obvious issues, including Roemer's record in his first term and Edwards' personal history. Edwards, who lost to Roemer four years ago, says the difference now is that his rival has a record to contrast with his 1987 campaign rhetoric. "He beguiled people successfully into thinking he could solve their problems without taxes," says Edwards. Roemer also has rubbed some of the politicians the wrong way with his aggressive or, in their view, sometimes abrasive personal style.

But Edwards has baggage of his own, not the least being two federal trials in 1986 on charges that ultimately collapsed of their own lack of weight -- but left a mark on Edwards nonetheless. Asked to explain his high negatives today, Edwards doesn't do the usual political dance. "It's because people think I'm crooked," he says. "They thought I was taking taxpayers' money." But, he adds, he has been audited six or seven times by the Internal Revenue Service and subjected to criminal investigations of his taxes three times. "Hell, if I had stolen any money, they'd have found it," he says.

If you had to bet today, however, Roemer would be the favorite. Although he has been controversial, no one would accuse him of being passive in confronting Louisiana's problems. But right now the first imperative for Buddy Roemer is proving that a Democratic convert can win approval and acceptance within the Republican Party. If he doesn't, there will be some very red faces in Washington.

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