Edwards grows more confident, but Louisiana voters are wincing

November 14, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW ORLEANS -- The red-hot Louisiana governor's contest is giving new meaning to the phrase "lesser of two evils."

"A crook or a racist," said Kathleen Bradley, 22, of New Orleans. "Which one do you want?"

For many in this state, Saturday's ballot holds a truly awful choice:

Voters can pick a telegenic new face with a terrifying past: Republican state Representative David E. Duke, one-time leader of the Ku Klux Klan who used to parade in a Nazi uniform.

Or they can send a discredited, scandal-scarred Democrat, Edwin W. Edwards, back to the governor's mansion for a fourth time.

It's a particularly wrenching decision for the 410,000 Louisianians who backed Republican Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III, the third-place finisher in last month's primary. These swing voters are many of the same reform-minded citizens who happily voted Mr.Edwards out of office four years ago.

"God, you don't know how much it hurts," said Norman Higginbotham, a science instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. "I've got to go with Edwards, even though we'll probably be raped for another four years. . . . What scares me about him is, he's going to take everything he can. Edwards is trying one more time to pad his pocket."

With only two days to go, there are signs that other Roemer voters are also resolving their dilemma in favor of Mr. Edwards. A newpoll shows the Democrat edging ahead of Mr. Duke, though he is still shy of a majority.

Mr. Edwards led 49 percent to 42 percent in a statewide survey by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., up 3 percentage points since last week. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 points.

"I think this election is pretty much in the bag," Mr. Edwards said confidently last night.

According to Mason-Dixon's Brad Coker, "The undecideds are all white Roemer voters who hate both of them."

Undecided voters appear to be moving toward Mr. Edwards out of fear that a Duke victory would damage the state's image and cripple its fragile economy.

In the New Orleans area, home to the largest concentration of Roemer voters, anti-Duke TV ads feature a warning from jazz idol Pete Fountain about harm to the tourist industry, a leading source of jobs, if Mr. Duke wins. The ads have been reinforced by a steady stream of news accounts about threatened cancellations of conventions and sports events.

Interviews with Roemer voters and leaders of the anti-Duke campaign, as well as poll results, suggest that the relentless focus on Mr. Duke's racist and anti-Semitic background has also swayed undecided voters.

Local TV newscasts and newspapers had failed, until recently, to thoroughly explore Mr. Duke's life.

Now they're filled with stories that cast doubt on his assertions that he has changed. They suggest that his apologies for past intolerance and his denunciation of the Klan are as artificial as his facial features, which have been enhanced by a plastic surgeon who fixed Mr. Duke's nose and smoothed his skin some years back.

A front-page story in yesterday's New Orleans Times-Picayune claimed that Mr. Duke told a Scottish interviewer in May 1990 that Nazi Rudolf Hess had deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.

TV and radio ads constantly replay a 1986 audio tape in which Mr. Duke talks about the possibility of a Hitler-like takeover of the United States.

"It may take decades to bring this government down," Mr. Duke is heard to say.

Jennifer Cooke of New Orleans, a Roemer Republican in her mid-20s, said she hadn't been aware, until recently, of the details of Mr. Duke's neo-Nazi activity. Her decision to support Mr. Edwards, she added, is as much "a moral stand" against bigotry as a vote of concern about the economic dangers of a Duke victory.

But Robert Morris of Shreveport thinks that the state needs change and that Mr. Duke has "a lot of great ideas," such as welfare reform, that would "keep people from taking a free ride."

"Duke's background is not so great, but he's also the most misquoted man alive," said the 21-year-old college student and National Guardsman, who voted for Mr. Roemer last month. "We'll get somewhat of a bad reputation for voting in a Klan member. But my grandfather was telling me the other night that when he was younger we had other governors who had been members of the Klan. It just wasn't as well known then."

Besides the saturation media campaign being waged against Mr. Duke, there has been a quiet campaign to contact Roemer voters individually.

At a New Orleans phone bank, volunteers are calling upscale Republican neighborhoods where Mr. Roemer got at least 60 percent of the vote, urging residents to come out for Mr. Edwards.

"It's like neighbors getting together and running a co-dependency clinic to get over their hang-ups about voting for the epitome of Louisiana rogueism. They need help with that, and it's good to hear a friendly voice from someone like them who is helping them make the decision," said Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane University historian.

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