NEW ORLEANS -- No matter who finishes first in today's closely watched Louisiana governor's runoff, one conclusion is clear: David Duke has already won.
Even if he is not elected, the former Klansman will likely receive a majority of the white vote, and with it, his ticket into the 1992 presidential sweepstakes.
That's a particularly frightening prospect for President Bush, who has already been hurt politically by Mr. Duke's rise.
"Democrats complain about Jesse Jackson. Think what Duke can do to the Republicans," said Stan J. Makielski, a political scientist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "He could prevent Bush from winning, if he runs a third-party candidacy."
Speculation abounds about a Duke presidential bid. He denies such plans, but a former aide who quit the campaign this week said that Mr. Duke repeatedly told him that he would run for president in 1992, whether he becomes governor or not.
Mr. Duke ran for president before, as a fringe candidate in 1988, and got few votes. Since then, he has become a Republican -- and a force to be reckoned with in U.S. politics.
Final pre-election polls in the Louisiana governor's race show Mr. Duke trailing Democratic former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards by 6 to 8 percentage points. State politicians say a relentless barrage of anti-Duke publicity has probably cinched a fourth term for Mr. Edwards.
But an election loss would scarcely be a setback at this point for Mr. Duke, whose political evolution is a classic example of failing upward.
His gubernatorial campaign grew directly out of his loss in last year's U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., in which Mr. Duke got about 60 percent of the white vote.
Though he has only won one election -- a 1989 race for the state legislature -- Mr. Duke is currently better known nationally than any of the Democratic presidential candidates, according to two recent polls.
His message of middle-class resentment is attracting broad national support, though most Americans distrust him as the messenger, the latest Gallup Poll showed.
During his four-week runoff campaign, which analysts may look back upon as the turning point in his career, favorable impressions of Mr. Duke increased, the poll found.
Efforts to stop Mr. Duke's candidacy and expose him as a racist have only heightened his stature as a protest figure, especially -- among millions of alienated whites.
The national obsession with Mr. Duke's candidacy has given him millions of dollars worth of free media exposure. Yet it has also allowed him to portray himself to supporters as the victim of an elitist conspiracy by liberal media "parasites."
"He's going to be able to say, 'They ganged up on me. It's not just blacks beating me up. It's not just Jews beating me up. It's the guys from Washington. It's big business.' There it is: everyone's paranoid fantasy rolled into one package," says Loyola's Mr. Makielski.
Not since former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's third-party presidential candidacies has a figure championed the frustrations of working-class whites as successfully as Mr. Duke has done, despite his hate-filled background.
"They're so passionately and desperately eager to believe in a savior, they're going through the most convoluted denials to support him," said Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane University historian.
Mr. Duke is pulling together many of the same elements of the Wallace constituency -- rural voters, blue-collar whites who have drifted away from the Democratic Party and white-collar, middle-class Republican suburbanites.
He has also been winning the generational conflict, attracting a large following among younger whites, including college students.
"It's a case of people striving to get ahead and experiencing blocked opportunity," said Mr. Powell.
Already, Mr. Duke has succeeded in shifting the political debate in
Louisiana to his racially loaded agenda of welfare, crime and quotas, rather than the fiscal and educational reforms emphasized by defeated Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III.
Less clear is the impact he would have on the national debate if he ran next year.
Several Democratic presidential candidates are attempting to lure the same "forgotten" middle class with offers of government activism, such as a national health insurance.
But Mr. Duke would try to pull them in the opposite direction with an anti-government approach.
Where that would leave Mr. Bush, meantime, is uncertain.
But in a presidential election, the majority of Duke votes would come straight out of Mr. Bush's conservative constituency. For Bush campaign strategists, last month's three-way primary for Louisiana governor, in which Mr. Roemer, the Bush-endorsed candidate, ran third, is an obvious example of the potential threat.
Even if Mr. Duke is not a candidate next year, the agonizing Louisiana governor's race has created potential problems for the president by drawing national attention to the Republican Party's use of racial politics over the past two decades.
Among some of Mr. Bush's own supporters there is growing concern that he and his Republican predecessors may have been partly to blame for Mr. Duke, by making his politics seem more acceptable.
"Ronald Reagan paved the way for Duke from the White House, and Willie Horton gave credibility to racism," says Sheri Salvagio, of Metarie, La., who voted for Mr. Bush in 1988.
After what her state has been through in recent weeks, she isn't sure she'll vote to re-elect Mr. Bush next year.
"I'm at a crossroads politically," she explained.