BATON ROUGE, La. -- When David Duke entered a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Jo Ann Jernigan, a retired nurse and lifelong Democrat, jumped to her feet and applauded.
"I've got to see my candidate," she said of Duke, the Republican candidate for governor and a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. "He's so cute. How can someone who looks like that be bad?"
Jernigan's friend, Sara M. Spencer, a retired teacher and lifelong Republican, remained seated and covered her eyes with her hand.
"I can't even bear to look at him," she said. "He's a phony. He would destroy this state. He wants to set the blacks back 100 years."
The tight and tough 1991 Louisiana governor's race, said one man, "has flip-flopped the state, turning Democrats into Republicans and vice versa." It has also divided many longtime friends like the two white women from Monroe attending the state convention of the American Association of Retired Persons in Baton Rouge.
And yesterday in a packed ballroom at the Baton Rouge Hilton, those divisions were clearly on display. Duke, a state representative from Metairie, and his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 16 runoff election, Edwin W. Edwards, a three-term governor, sat three feet apart at a forum and exchanged insults as well as ideas while 500 retired people frequently booed and hissed the two men's responses.
"In Louisiana, politics can get very, very personal," said a Duke worker, James A. McPherson. "This is their third meeting. It gets hot every time."
Ignoring the pleas of the moderator not to discuss the personal backgrounds of their opponent, both men did exactly that.
Edwards, a flamboyant, wealthy politician seeking a comeback after surviving two trials on corruption charges, avoided mentioning Duke's past ties with the Klan and neo-Nazi groups. He did say Duke had failed to pay federal income taxes for three years "until they caught you."
Duke said he did not have to file because he did not make enough money. But before he could finish, he was pelted with boos by the largely white crowd that generally seemed supportive of Duke.
"Isn't it refreshing," he said, trying to recapture the audience, "that you have a politician who doesn't have money everywhere. I'm not like Mr. Edwards. I only have one house."
Edwards shot back that it appeared "you never had a job."
After the forum, Gloria Richardson, a retired secretary, sighed deeply.
"I'm one of those people, and there are a lot of us, who don't like FTC either one of them," she said. "I still don't like them. I have a big problem."
Duke seemed to win more applause yesterday. His anti-welfare pitch has struck a responsive chord in this economically troubled state.
Even Edwards admitted that the audience appeared to side with Duke. He said he expected to have a rough reception because "these are retirees who are having a hard time."
"They and others have been beguiled by his simplistic approach to government," Edwards said. "Duke is holding out false hope and a cruel hoax."