Edwards trounces Duke in Louisiana Unified bid to halt former Klansman aided ex-governor

November 17, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Democrat Edwin W. Edwards rolled up a landslide victory over Republican David E. Duke in the bitterly fought Louisiana governor's runoff election yesterday.

An avalanche of black votes and widespread fears that a Duke victory would mean economic calamity for the state helped propel Mr. Edwards to a larger-than-expected triumph.

In their election night speeches, both candidates conveyed a similar warning: that the spectacle of the past few weeks in Louisiana was only the first skirmish in a national political battle // over race.

"Tonight, Louisiana became the first to turn back the merchant of hate, the master of deceit," Mr. Edwards told cheering supporters at a New Orleans hotel. But, he added, "there will be other places and other times."

Mr. Duke, in his concession speech, called for conciliation. But he also said: "The candidate may have lost, but the message goes out loud and clear across this country. . . . If we don't turn around this state and our nation, then we're going to lose them.

"That campaign is not over. It is only just beginning," the loser added, prompting trademark chants of "Duke, Duke, Duke" from supporters at a hotel here.

With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Edwards had 1,013,693 vote, or 61 percent, to Mr. Duke's 657,577 votes, or 39 percent.

Mr. Duke, the former Klansman and neo-Nazi making his boldest bid yet for higher office, was unable to overcome his own resume of hate and a unified opposition of business and political leaders, including President Bush.

By a wider than expected margin, Louisianians chose to put their state in the hands of Mr. Edwards, a suave, 64-year-old politician who had asked for a chance to redeem a history of gambling, womanizing and close brushes with the law.

Black voters turned out in potentially record numbers, with better than 95 percent of those votes going to Mr. Edwards. Mr. Edwards also ran better than expected in northern Louisiana, a Duke stronghold, and in Acadiana, his native region, where Mr. ++ Duke had hoped to prevail.

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.

Voter turnout was 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.

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 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 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.

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 lingering suspicions of Mr. Edwards, the state's twice-indicted but never-convicted former governor.

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