Washington -- David Duke, ex-Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi propagandist, says with a straight face that he's not on the far right of politics at all.
He insists that he is a loyal Republican, and supports George Bush whether Mr. Bush supports him or not.
This embarrasses the president, particularly since the White House intervened in Louisiana politics to persuade Gov. Buddy Roemer to switch from Democrat to Republican, after which the president went down to campaign for him and then saw him lose in the first round to both Mr. Duke and Democratic ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards.
But when Mr. Duke's claim to orthodox Republicanism is examined objectively, it's hard to challenge. This is not so much a comment on Mr. Duke's avowed maturing as it is on what orthodox Republicanism has turned into in the past decade.
The other night, Mr. Duke sat still for Larry King on CNN, giving the nation a glimpse of the bland-sounding, face-lifted demagogue who is close to taking the governor's office once occupied by such populist rogues as Huey Long and Ed Edwards himself.
In that short time, Mr. Duke touched all the hot buttons that have brought him this far despite his background. Anyone reading his words might assume they came from Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Dan Quayle, John Sununu -- any of the statesmen who have helped our president redefine Republicanism in the late 20th century.
He started by saying he was for equal rights for all, for welfare reform and for less government. True, he admitted, ''I'm saying so a lot more pointedly'' than some others.
For example, he calls the civil-rights bill finally agreed on by Congress and White House a ''civil wrongs act.'' If the last previous version was a ''quota bill,'' as the president asserted, then the minutely modified current version must be a quota bill, too, says Mr. Duke.
Mr. Bush switched to support the revised bill after the parallels between the ex-Klansman's objections and his own became so conspicuous in Mr. Duke's gubernatorial campaign.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Duke supports Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. He seems confident that the controversial justice will help move things in the right direction.
For instance, he is against ''forced busing'' of schoolchildren: ''Thank goodness we've got a more conservative Supreme Court'' that may end it. He also is for school choice, something the Bush administration is pushing despite its church-state complications.
Busy pushing all these buttons, Mr. Duke uses little of his free air time criticizing his run-off opponent, Mr. Edwards, whose gubernatorial past offers copious material. When he does, he says that during the Edwards administration toxic waste was tolerated, and ''murderers, criminals, child molesters, drug dealers were let out of jail.''
If that has a familiar ring, it may be because it accurately echoes Mr. Bush's attacks on Michael Dukakis last time out.
''Thank goodness,'' says Mr. Duke again, ''we have President Bush to veto some of the bills from this liberal Congress.''
When he does differ with the president, it is on issues close to his core blue-collar constituency. He would have signed the extension of unemployment benefits opposed by the president, and he is for federally supported day care to help working parents.
Mr. Bush, of course, is targeting blue-collar America for the votes necessary to his own re-election. Thus he has now seen the wisdom of extending jobless benefits, as long as he can find a face-saving formula. Whether he will also switch to support some form of day care is yet to be seen.
It may be seen, in fact, on the night of November 16, when the returns come in from Louisiana. We should not expect the president to cheer publicly if Mr. Duke wins, but we can be certain that his strategists will be taking meticulous notes, and polling like mad to see which issues made the difference.
They will be aware, for example, that Mr. Duke thinks drug testing should be required for welfare recipients and occupants of public housing. When the ex-Klansman speaks in code, he doesn't make the code too hard to decipher.
Mr. Duke may, as he says, speak more pointedly than most of those at the national level. That should make it easier for them to learn from him, to convert his thrusts into sound bites more subtle. But, recalling the Willie Horton commercials of 1988, it seems just as likely that David Duke has taken lessons from them.