Washington -- AT THE White House and the Republican National Committee they are turning up their noses at David Duke. He's not one of us, no sir, he's just some guy calling himself a Republican.
What a hoot. The fact is that David Duke is not just a Republican but remarkably close to the mainstream of the party as it has evolved lately. The welfare horror stories he tells are almost identical to those Ronald Reagan told for years. Duke's opposition to affirmative action is no different from that voiced by both the Reagan and Bush administrations for the last 11 years -- and no different from President Bush's insistence that any civil rights bill is "a quota bill." Duke's line blaming the liberals for being soft on crime is mild compared to Willie Horton.
Duke is, of course, a little more candid in playing the race card than his cleaned-up fellow Republican George Bush. He talks about "the black bloc vote," which Bush would never do, and he defines the liberalism of his Democratic rival for governor of Louisiana, former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, by pointing out he is a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bush never did that; he hung Michael Dukakis's liberalism around his neck by citing his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.
But, despite differences in tone, the thrust of Duke's campaign is no different from what Sen. Jesse Helms used against Harvey Gantt in North Carolina last year -- with the full blessing of President Bush and the national Republican Party.
There is no mystery about the White House concern. Republicans would like to get away with playing the game of racial politics without getting the name. Because of his history in the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke doesn't have that luxury. And if he succeeds in the Nov. 16 runoff, two consequences are almost inevitable:
First, other Republicans will use a perhaps laundered version of the same strategy. Politics is an imitative business and politicians do what works. Second, the Republican Party will be tarnished enough by the racist label to cause some uneasiness among moderates essential to Republican success.
All this leads to the ultimate irony: Although the Republicans insist they don't have a horse in this race, they must rely on that liberal rogue Edwin Edwards to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.
On paper, Edwards is an obvious favorite. He can count on solid support from blacks, who are likely to cast about 25 percent of the vote. That means the Democratic candidate needs only about 31 to 32 percent of the white vote, almost twice what he polled in the primary last week but a realistic target if it is assumed that supporters of defeated Gov. Buddy Roemer break preponderantly in Edwards' direction.
There is, however, obvious reason for caution. In the last three presidential elections it has become clear that liberal Democrats have far more trouble carrying southern states in which they need only one-third or less of the white vote -- Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama, for example -- than those in which the black vote is smaller and they need more than 40 percent of the white vote. There is some still undefined tipping point at which white voters begin to see the Democrats as "the black party" and refuse to be identified with them.
That phenomenon has been most obvious in presidential elections, but it also has manifested itself elsewhere. The loss suffered by Democrat Paul Hubbert in the 1990 Alabama gubernatorial election is a case in point. And the flamboyant Edwards, one of the genuine free spirits of American politics, carries far more baggage than Hubbert.
It is also true, however, that David Duke carries even heavier baggage. It may be that Edwards will win because there are enough Roemer voters appalled by the prospect of a former Klan leader as governor of their state.
But David Duke has made a career of confounding the conventional wisdom. He did it in winning his seat in the state VTC legislature two years ago, again in polling a majority of the white vote while running strongly against Sen. J. Bennett Johnston last year and then still again in the primary last week.
David Duke may not meet the lofty White House standards for membership in the Republican Party, but he has been winning on a message that sounds very Republican indeed.