Edge in Louisiana goes to Edwards DOWN TO THE WIRE

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 15, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover,Jonathan Massie -- Evening Sun Staff

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the most bizarre campaigns in American political history comes to a close here today awash in rancorous rhetoric. Most indicators pointed to a victory by former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, the colorful political rogue seeking political redemption at 64.

But there was still some nervous uncertainty in the bipartisan de facto coalition that has formed to defeat David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klan leader who claimed a place on the national political stage by exploiting working class anger at liberal welfare programs and racial resentment against affirmative action programs.

Three opinion polls on the contest for governor showed Democrat Edwards with comfortable leads of 7 to 10 percentage points over Duke, who stunned the political world -- and embarrassed the White House -- a month ago by qualifying for this runoff as a Republican.

But political professionals cautioned that the surveys, despite the use of new techniques to refine their data, may be under-stating Duke's strength as they did when he polled an unexpected 44 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston here a year ago. Duke himself insisted predictably that "I've always under polled and I think I'm in a good position to win this race."

There were two prime questions on the eve of the election.

First, would supporters of Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Democrat-turned-Republican eliminated in the first primary last month, bother to vote for Edwards to "save" the state's reputation and economy from Duke in the governor's chair?

Second, would Duke pay at the polls -- particularly among religious fundamentalists in north Louisiana -- from late questioning of the sincerity of his much-advertised religious conversion to "born again" fundamentalism?

Private tracking polls being made for Edwards indicated he could win as much as 57 to 61 percent of tomorrow's vote. And Edwards said the election was "in the bag." But his own strategists privately advised him to tone down his ebullience because they fear the figures might not hold up unless white voters who don't like either man turn out heavily.

Secretary of State Fox McKeithen was predicting a near-record turnout of 75 percent as the campaign became a preoccupation of the news media over the last two weeks.

Duke was reacting angrily to a tidal wave of scorn being heaped on his head from quarters as diverse as welfare recipients, industrialists and newspaper sports columnists. He railed at Ted Kennedy, the news media and "outsiders" trying to influence Louisiana voters, as well at Edwards' long history of cronyism.

"If you want what we've had for the last 20 years, then go ahead and vote for Edwin Edwards," he told cheering supporters at Evangeline Downs racetrack near Lafayette.

Two developments late in the campaign seemed to strengthen the case for an Edwards victory.

Duke, trying to explain away what he conceded might be considered "a radical past" as an avowed American Nazi, has been attributing the change to his religious conversion and larding his speeches with religious references. At a Wednesday night rally, for example, he declared: "I know I would not be here except for the love and grace of Jesus Christ."

But Duke failed to convince inquiring clergymen of the validity of his explanation, particularly when he could point to no affiliation with any church at all. Then one of his leading campaign officials, Bob Hawks, defected from Duke with a public pronouncement that Duke's religious claims were insincere and designed solely to provide political cover.

Duke responded by suggesting Hawks had been "planted" in his campaign organization by Edwards, a charge totally lacking in documentation that the Democrats quickly denied.

The issue might appear to be a tempest in a teapot in a campaign characterized from start to finish by wild charges and countercharges. But the heart of Duke's support in north Louisiana has been among Protestant fundamentalists who are also determinedly conservative in their politics.

Edwards strategists had no illusions these voters might support the Democrat, but they argued -- and other more objective analysts agreed -- that the issue might dilute enthusiasm for Duke where he needs it most.

At one point, Duke tried to counter by pointing to a quote in 1984 in which Edwards questioned the literal accuracy of the Resurrection. But Edwards blithely countered that since the Resurrection could not be explained by natural law, he had accepted it as an article of faith. And, given his well-earned reputation as a womanizer and high-stakes gambler, Edwards never expected to make any inroads among culturally conservative voters in any part of the state.

The second, and probably most important, factor in the late movement toward Edwards was the drumfire of messages to the voters that the election of Duke would be a disaster for the state's image and, as a result, its economy. In some cases, Edwards' own case against Duke was being drowned out by that from other quarters.

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