WASHINGTON. — Washington -- David Duke, the race-baiting, Jew-hating former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, has knocked off the Republican candidate and is in the finals for the post of governor of Louisiana. And that has the White House and the Republican National Committee in embarrassed frenzy.
President Bush's favorite, Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, came in third in Saturday's primary, so Louisianians get to choose between the ex-Nazi, Mr. Duke and the former Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards, who spent most of his tenure fighting off corruption charges.
The White House is at great pains to declare that Mr. Duke is ''not the Republican candidate'' and that President Bush is ''absolutely opposed to the kind of racist statements that have ,, come out of David Duke now and in the past.''
The ironic truth is that Duke-the-successful-politician is very much the creation of the Republican National Committee, and of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. They wrote the successful playbook on the politics of racial hatred, of regional and class paranoia, of the use of buzzwords to inflame the emotions of voters. Mr. Duke is using it with skill.
He campaigns ruthlessly against ''affirmative action'' and ''quotas,'' telling whites that they are losing jobs, scholarships and other things to blacks who get ''unfair preferences.'' George Bush is just as relentless in his baseless cries of ''quotas'' to justify his veto of a civil-rights bill that really includes no ''unfair preferences.''
Mr. Duke runs hard against welfare recipients, telling economically hard-pressed voters that they are paying to give food and shelter to lazy bums. President Nixon made it a staple to rant against ''welfare bums''; President Reagan told many stories about ''welfare queens'' and their ''frauds,'' and President Bush plays to class resentments in many ways, including naming to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, a black man who assailed welfare recipients.
The politics of fear must include flaming rhetoric about ''violent crime,'' with a promise to do something about it.
Mr. Duke offers plain-talk extensions of the 1988 Bush campaign featuring a black murderer, Willie Horton. His ''cures'' parallel the Bush program of arresting more people, building new prisons and jails for them, keeping them incarcerated longer and executing more of them.
Republican leaders may never have joined the Klan, or celebrated the birthday of Adolf Hitler, but when it comes to basic ideology and a willingness to gain votes through appeals to racism and economic fears, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them and David Duke.
That's why Republicans don't fear Mr. Duke as governor of Louisiana as much as they fear him as a third-party candidate for the presidency next year.
They remember that, using the same demagogic appeals that Mr. Duke employs, Alabama's George Wallace won piles of votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland and elsewhere in the 1968 primaries, and received 13.5 per cent of the national vote in the election. David Duke could take a lot of votes from President Bush and break the GOP's new grip on the South in presidential balloting.
For the Republicans, some very ugly chickens could come home to roost.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.