The threat from David Duke and his racial politics On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

West Monroe, La. -- IT IS a Saturday night and the 400 white folks who have gathered at the convention center here are listening intently and nodding approvingly as David Duke tells his horror stories.

There is the one about the people with food stamps who use them to buy "the best cuts of meat" and then use their cash for lottery tickets. There is the one about how people on welfare "have illegitimate kids faster than you can afford to pay for them." And the one about the retired schoolteacher who sometimes can't afford to run her air conditioner in hot weather while prison inmates enjoy "central heat, central air and color television."

They applaud lustily when Duke distills his message: "The first people we should help are the people who have helped others through their taxes all their lives."

David Duke's sermon is essentially the same one he has been preaching since he first intruded on the national consciousness as a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan by winning a state legislative seat as a Republican in the face of the party's and President Bush's disavowal of him. It is still a message with enough political reach so that professionals here believe there is a strong chance Duke will be one of the two leading candidates in the gubernatorial primary Saturday and thus qualify for the Nov. 16 runoff.

The conventional wisdom is that, even if that happened, Duke would be a definite underdog to either incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Democrat-turned-Republican who is the designated target of all the other candidates, or former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, the insouciantly roguish Democrat seeking to make still another comeback. "I cannot imagine this state electing DavidDuke," says Roemer.

But it is also true that no one would have imagined Duke winning 44 percent of the vote, and a majority of the white vote, against Sen. J. Bennett Johnston last year. Just a few months ago few Louisiana politicians -- Roemer was an exception -- were able to imagine Duke being a threat to make the runoff in the primary in which all candidates of both parties run against one another.

In fact, no one has any solid idea about where this race stands. Opinion polls generally show Roemer and Edwards slightly ahead of Duke, but Duke demonstrated in 1990 that polls tend to understate his support. Some knowledgeable operatives believe that may be less the case now because Duke is seen as a more politically respectable figure. But Duke scoffs at the notion his support is all on the table. "That's what they said last year," he says.

Duke's success or failure can have important implications for the Republican Party and American politics in general. He demonstrated in his first campaign just three years ago that the affirmative action -- or "reverse discrimination" -- issue touches a hot button of racial resentment among white voters, and other politicians, including President Bush, have adopted the same approach to one degree or another.

Duke isn't subtle about the racial element in his appeal. He refers routinely to "the black bloc vote," and he reminds every audience that Roemer and Edwards are both members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When he talks about "equal rights for everyone," his white listeners know what he means.

Duke has an opening because both Roemer and Edwards are carrying heavy political baggage. Roemer was elected four years ago witha pledge to "scrub" the state budget and avoid new taxes. But, like almost all state governors, he has been forced into increases and he is being excoriated for breaking his promises and for his inability to get along with the legislature.

Edwards, twice tried but never convicted on corruption charges, is still seen as a political rascal by many voters. When a visiting reporter suggests that his "negatives" seem to have gone down a little, Edwards laughs and replies, "That's because Roemer's have gone up. It's only by comparison that I look good." He can depend on solid support among blacks, who may cast one-fourth of the total vote, but needs 15 percent of the white vote as well to make the runoff.

If Roemer and Edwards are the finalists, Roemer probably will be a slight favorite. If only one of them qualifies, he will be a clear favorite against Duke. But just the fact that Duke is a realistic possibility speaks volumes about American politics today.

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