BATON ROUGE, La. -- Democrat Edwin W. Edwards grabbed a lead over Republican David E. Duke in the bitterly fought Louisiana governor's runoff last night, according to network exit polls.
Mr. Duke, the former Klansman and neo-Nazi making his boldest bid yet for higher office, was apparently unable to surmount his own resume of hate and the unified opposition of the political establishment, including President Bush.
Louisianians appeared to have chosen to put their state once again into the hands of Mr. Edwards, a suave, 64-year-old politician who had asked for a chance to redeem a personal history of gambling, womanizing and close brushes with the law.
The comeback-minded ex-governor built his coalition on a base of virtually unanimous support from the state's black voters, who cast between one-quarter and one-third of the total statewide vote.
Mr. Edwards also drew votes from his fellow Cajuns in the southern part of the state and from liberal and moderate whites, many of them more concerned about stopping Mr. Duke than returning the roguish former governor to power for a record fourth term.
Mr. Duke pulled heavy support from white voters in rural and suburban areas of the state. As he had in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign last year, he was expected to wind up with a majority of the white vote when all the ballots were tallied.
Voter turnout was reported to be heavy, the result of unusually hot mid-November weather and a scorching four-week campaign that became an obsession with people here in Louisiana and drew international media attention.
The focus was mainly on Mr. Duke, a 41-year-old former Ku Klux Klan leader and Nazi enthusiast whose white supremacist background became a central issue in the election.
Even before the votes had been counted, there was speculation that Mr. Duke would use his new status as a nationally known political figure as a springboard into the 1992 presidential race.
In this fall's campaign, his third in as many years, Mr. Duke continued to refine his racially charged, anti-government message in an effort to make himself more acceptable to mainstream voters.
His white protest agenda, which includes opposition to crime, quotas and the welfare system, has broad support, national polls show. Like more conventional "outsider" candidates, Mr. Duke has successfully exploited the epidemic of anti-incumbent fever sweeping the nation.
The Edwards-Duke campaign quickly degenerated into a polarizing personal battle between two unpopular politicians, and many voters expressed disgust over the choice they were forced to make.
Many Louisianians alternated between anger and shame over the new national image of their state as a hotbed of white racism. But both Mr. Duke and his detractors agreed that he was touching a widespread sense of frustration and resentment among working-class whites that spreads far beyond the borders of the South.
Even Mr. Edwards argued that the Duke candidacy was not a local phenomenon: "He would run as well in California and New York and Illinois as he runs here."
The potency of Mr. Duke's message was reflected in the way he succeeded in shifting the campaign debate to his own, race-based issue agenda. By Election Day, Mr. Edwards was stealing the Duke message, in an attempt to cut into Mr. Duke's base of support among whites.
An Edwards radio commercial, beamed into rural areas of the state yesterday, featured the same racial scapegoating for which Mr. Duke had been widely condemned, including by Mr. Edwards.
"Hey, I don't like the welfare system," declares the countrified narrator in the Edwards commercial.
In an echo of another Duke theme, the Edwards campaign ad expresses outrage over the interference in Louisiana internal affairs by "outsiders and the national media."
Both men spent the entire campaign apologizing for past mistakes and trying to persuade voters that they had reformed.
Mr. Duke tried to capitalize on the public's lingering suspicions of Mr. Edwards, the state's twice-indicted but never-convicted former governor. In an election eve TV ad, Mr. Duke attacked the Democrat for allegedly selling state jobs in return for large campaign contributions -- though the allegation was 20 years old and had never been proved.
For his part, Mr. Edwards sought to reassure supporters of former Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III, the reform candidate who defeated him in the 1987 governor's race, that he was "wise enough and mature enough not to blow it" if he got another chance to serve as governor.
Mr. Roemer, who lost in last month's primary despite strong White House backing, publicly endorsed Mr. Edwards. Winning the support of the 410,000 Roemer voters was widely regarded as the key to yesterday's election.
During the campaign, neither candidate offered a plan for developing Louisiana's slack economy, by far the most serious problem facing this troubled state.