Ex-Klansman Duke tastes triumph in La. campaign

October 18, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

CROWLEY, La. -- Fueled by white voter resentment and distrust of government, former Klansman David Duke appears poised to score a major triumph in tomorrow's election for governor of Louisiana.

Mr. Duke's resurgence has confounded the experts, who failed to anticipate the apparent breadth of his appeal and his ability to tap a national tide of voter alienation, which is running at flood levels in this economically troubled state.

On the eve of the open primary, in which both parties compete, polls show that Mr. Duke, a Republican state representative, is in a virtual three-way tie for the lead with Republican Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III and former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, a Democrat.

State politicians say that Mr. Duke stands a good chance of advancing into the runoff election Nov. 16.

Privately, at least one of Mr. Roemer's top campaign advisers predicted this week that Mr. Duke would finish first in tomorrow's balloting.

As he campaigned across the bayou country of southern Louisiana this week, Mr. Duke was ebullient. He said he sensed a greater level of acceptance than in his 1990 Senate race, when he outran by a considerable margin pre-election forecasts in taking almost 45 percent of the vote -- and 60 percent of the white vote -- against veteran Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.

"Are y'all ready for a new governor?" Mr. Duke shouted to supporters outside the Acadia Parish courthouse in Crowley, La. "We need a change."

An elderly Cajun, standing near the front of the all-white crowd, hollered a question of his own to the 41-year-old candidate.

"Speak any French?" he asked.

"No I don't," Mr. Duke responded. "But I speak your language when it comes to taxes and welfare and government."

The square-shouldered, sandy-haired Mr. Duke, whose telegenic features have been improved through plastic surgery, is running a more sophisticated campaign these days. He has pared his staff to four paid workers, from 78 last year, he says, letting him pump more money into TV and radio ads.

Despite difficulty in measuring the "hidden" Duke vote -- those unwilling to tell pollsters they are supporting him, for fear of appearing racist -- his support hovers around the 30 percent mark, roughly the same as that for Mr. Roemer and Mr. Edwards.

Twelve names are on the ballot in all, including U.S. Representative Clyde C. Holloway, the endorsed candidate of the state Republican Party.

If none of them gets 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two finishers will be necessary.

Mr. Duke's popularity remains rooted in his white supremacist views, and his campaign speeches contain numerous coded appeals to racial prejudice.

He attacks "welfare parasites," affirmative action, school busing and other policies he says discriminate against whites.

But his TV commercials shrewdly concentrate on mainstream issues such as cutting government spending and holding the line on tax increases.

In doing so, he adroitly touches many of the deepest concerns of white voters, including some linked less directly, if at all, to race. A recent analysis by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center concluded that race appears to be "a less potent factor" in this election than it was in the Duke-Johnston Senate race.

The same study found that voter cynicism had reached epidemic levels in this state. Mr. Duke's political gains are directly related to white voters' disgust with government, which they believe has lost touch with them, the UNO report concluded.

The Duke campaign "is the most visible manifestation today of white backlash in America," said Susan Howell, the UNO political scientist who wrote the report.

"It began in the '60s with the civil rights movement and the [perceived failures of] Great Society programs. . . . Duke is the symbol of white reaction to those failures and to the feeling of the little white man who believes he has been forgotten by government."

Mr. Duke, who appears well-positioned to exploit the anti-government protest vote, has become, in effect, the racist reform candidate of 1991.

Remarkably, even those attempting to drive Mr. Duke from the political scene are deeply frustrated over the breakdown of government.

The Rev. James Stovall, who heads the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, says that the failures of national institutions, including government, have pushed problems down to the state level and allowed the Duke phenomenon to flourish.

"I hate to say this, because it plays into what Duke is saying. But the Louisiana Legislature has been taken over by PACs. The U.S. Congress has been taken over by PACs. . . . To be able to vote does not mean very much anymore," said Mr. Stovall, a retired United Methodist minister.

The anti-Duke organization, founded in 1989, the year of Mr. Duke's election to the Legislature, has attempted to expose the details of his involvement with Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

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