Louisiana's David Duke has managed to get recognition--but not respectability

May 24, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

ALEXANDRIA, La. -- Like most politicians, state Representative David Duke loves attention. More than most, he craves respectability, too.

But the white supremacist leader isn't getting enough of either to suit him these days as he campaigns for governor of Louisiana.

"In most of the articles, the first sentence still says 'ex-Klansman David Duke,' " the 40-year-old candidate complains to supporters. "I think there is nobody in this state that doesn't know that by now. Our people are tired of it."

Mr. Duke and his backers expected better, following his strong showing in last year's U.S. Senate race. He took a majority of the white vote and 44 percent of the total against veteran Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, getting almost 100,000 more votes than Gov. Buddy Roemer did in 1987.

Most politicians here, however, see 1990 as the high-water mark of Mr. Duke's statewide career. They dismiss his chances of making the runoff in this year's governor's contest. The Louisiana press is largely playing down his candidacy, preferring to concentrate instead on the grudge match between the perceived front-runners: Mr. Roemer, the party-switching Republican governor, and the man he beat four years ago, former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, a Democrat.

But the experts underestimated Mr. Duke's strength last fall, and at least a few politicians here, including Mr. Roemer, believe he could again wind up getting twice as many votes as the early polls indicate.

"The same thing could happen this time," the governor concedes. That might boost Mr. Duke's vote into the 25 percent range, conceivably enough to squeak into the runoff, if everything broke his way.

To hear Mr. Duke talk, however, breaks aren't something he has gotten since the day in February 1989 that he surmounted strong opposition from the national Republican Party and President Bush to win election, as a Republican, to the state legislature.

Around the Capitol in Baton Rouge, where he is a member of the Republican caucus, Mr. Duke is treated like any other legislator. But his activities in the Klan and the neo-Nazi movement, which he describes as a youthful mistake, have made him something of an outcast in the wider world.

The other evening, as he addressed about 100 supporters in a hotel basement in this central Louisiana city, Mr. Duke seemed to be admitting his failure to establish legitimacy as a politician.

If he could only get the Republican endorsement at next month's state party convention, he explained, "It will give us the credibility we need."

He proudly defines his candidacy as "totally outside the mainstream." But his failure to gain acceptance as a politician has severe drawbacks, as he tacitly acknowledges in assuring supporters that secret ballots will be used in the GOP endorsement process.

"I know some of you are still a little bit afraid to be open," he says. According to GOP officials, Duke supporters won 160 of 560 delegate slots at last weekend's caucuses, far short of the number needed to win the endorsement but perhaps enough to block anyone else from getting it.

Mr. Duke has generated controversy with a measure, approved yesterday by a committee of the Louisiana Legislature, that would authorize the state to provide the contraceptive Norplant to welfare mothers.

"They're having kids faster that they can raise our taxes to pay for it all," he says of welfare recipients.

Opponents call the proposal a "sterilization" plan, but Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California recently proposed a similar initiative that would make Norplant available to teen-agers and drug addicts.

The Norplant proposal is one of the few new features of Mr. Duke's current candidacy. Otherwise, his race for governor is simply a continuation of his 1990 Senate campaign, which played on widespread voter resentment and anger toward government in this economically hard-pressed state.

Even if Mr. Duke manages to make the runoff, politicians here say, he is unlikely to win the governorship. And if he stays in the race, he'll have to give up his seat in the legislature, further de-legitimizing him politically. Some think a 1992 campaign for Congress is next. Others see him taking on Mr. Bush in the Republican primaries.

Mr. Duke denies any such plans, but he's the one stirring presidential speculation.

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