Winners set stage for racially charged La. runoff

October 21, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for one of hottest, most racially charged campaigns in years, former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards will meet former Klansman David Duke next month in a runoff election for governor of Louisiana.

Mr. Duke, a freshman member of the Louisiana Legislature, enters the four-week campaign as the underdog, but at least one analyst gives him a "50-50" chance of winning the election Nov. 16.

The showdown between Republican Duke and Democrat Edwards was the surprise outcome of Saturday's Louisiana primary, which dealt a double-barreled setback to the national Republican Party.

Mr. Duke's rise to power poses a continuing embarrassment to the GOP, which has sought to disown the former Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi enthusiast even as Republican voters in Louisiana helped advance his political career.

Moreover, Mr. Duke's strong primary showing spelled defeat for incumbent Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer, the nation's most prominent party-switching Republican, who quit the Democratic Party this year after having been wooed personally by President Bush and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.

The Republican National Committee pumped money and high-powered staff into the Roemer re-election campaign. Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle came to Louisiana to campaign for the governor, whose party switch may have weakened his chances for a second term.

Sununu said yesterday, in an appearance on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley": "David Duke is not the Republican nominee. He is an individual that has chosen to call himself a Republican. The president is absolutely opposed to the kind of racist statements that have come out of David Duke now and in the past."

Virtually complete, unofficial primary returns yesterday gave Mr. Edwards 34 percent of the vote, Mr. Duke 32 percent, and Mr. Roemer 27 percent. Nine other candidates split the rest of the vote.

By state law, a runoff between the two top finishers is necessary when no one receives a majority in the open primary, in which both parties compete.

If the primary campaign is any indication, Mr. Duke's runoff strategy will be a continuation of his racially tinged attempt to portray Mr. Edwards as the candidate of what he terms "the black bloc vote."

"Unlike Edwin, I will not crawl in bed with the NAACP," Mr. Duke said, in an apparently successful effort to peel away rural white supporters from Mr. Edwards in the primary.

Mr. Edwards, a flamboyant populist from the southern, French-speaking Cajun area whose campaign received financial support from the state Democratic Party, received only 15 percent of the white vote. The overwhelming portion of his support came from blacks, 88 percent of whom supported him.

Independent pollster Brad Coker estimated that Mr. Duke has a "50-50 chance" of winning the runoff based on a poll taken in the final days of the primary race.

Mr. Coker, of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., said he found that Mr. Edwards, whose third term as governor was tainted by corruption charges and economic decline, was more unpopular among white voters than Mr. Duke.

Mr. Edwards, 64, made little secret that his comeback candidacy has been motivated in large measure by a desire for revenge against Mr. Roemer, who unseated him in a 1987 voter revolt.

And as the four-week runoff campaign got under way yesterday, it appeared that the identity of the state's next governor rested largely with former Roemer supporters, mainly upscale urban and suburban whites, who now find themselves facing an agonizing choice.

Doubtless speaking for many of them, Mr. Roemer, in an election-eve speech, described an Edwards-Duke runoff as "my greatest nightmare" for the state of Louisiana.

Mr. Duke needs about two-thirds of the state's white vote to become governor, analysts said. In his unsuccessful Senate race last year against Democratic incumbent J. Bennett Johnston, he got almost 60 percent of the white vote.

Edward F. Renwick, a political scientist at Loyola University in New Orleans, said that black voter turnout was the other key to the runoff.

"Edwards has the edge as long as there is not a precipitous drop in black turnout," said Mr. Renwick. "If blacks don't turn out to vote in this election, when will they turn out?"

Mr. Duke, 41, came to national prominence in 1989 when he won election to the state House of Representatives from a New Orleans suburb over the opposition of Mr. Bush.

His message of welfare reform and less government interference touched a deep vein of resentment among middle-class suburban and rural whites in a state whose economy is chronically depressed.

Even if he is defeated next month, his strong finish in the primary, which most analysts failed to anticipate until the closing weeks of the race, may embolden Mr. Duke to carry his protest candidacy into next year's Republican presidential primaries against Mr. Bush, Louisiana politicians say.

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