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 to a landslide win over Republican David E. Duke in the bitterly fought Louisiana governor's runoff election yesterday.

The populist former governor swept to victory on an avalanche of black votes and widespread fears that Mr. Duke's election would wreak economic calamity on the state.

In post-election speeches, both candidates conveyed essentially the same message: that the campaign in Louisiana may well have been the opening skirmish in a new 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 hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

'But," he warned, "there will be other challenges by other David ++ Dukes. They, too, will be peddling bigotry and division as their elixir of false hope. They, too, will be riding piggyback on the frustrations of citizens disaffected by government."

Elected officials everywhere, Mr. Edwards said, must "do what must be done to restore confidence and trust in the institution of government."

Mr. Duke, in remarks that were by turns conciliatory and defiant, vowed to carry his campaign forward, although he did not specify what his next race might be. There has been speculation that he will run for president in 1992, although he said again last night he has no plans to do so.

"The candidate may have lost but the message goes out loud and clear across Louisiana and all over this country," Mr. Duke said to supporters at a Baton Rouge hotel.

"If we don't turn around our state and our nation, then we're going to lose them. . . . That campaign is not over. It is only just beginning," the 41-year-old state legislator declared, prompting trademark chants of "Duke, Duke Duke," from the crowd.

With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Edwards had 1,061,233 votes, or 61 percent, to Mr. Duke's 681,278, or 39 percent.

Voter turnout was very heavy, the result of unusually hot mid-November weather and a scorching four-week campaign that became an obsession with people here and drew international media attention.

More than 77 percent of the 2.2 million registered voters cast ballots, the highest turnout for a governor's race here in more than 25 years.

Mr. Duke, a former Klansman and neo-Nazi making his boldest bid yet for higher office, was unable to overcome his resume of hate and the unified opposition of business and political leaders, including President Bush. But he got about 70,000 more votes than he did in losing last year's U.S. Senate race to incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La.

Mr. Duke again drew a majority of the white vote in the state, according to preliminary exit poll data.

But by a much wider than expected margin, Louisianans 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 personal history of gambling, womanizing and close brushes with the law.

Black voters turned out in possibly record numbers, with better than 95 percent of those votes going to Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards swept virtually all the parishes in the southern half of the state, including his native Acadiana, where Mr. Duke had hoped to prevail, and ran surprisingly well in northern Louisiana, a Duke stronghold.

The comeback-minded former governor was successful in attracting roughly three out of every four supporters of former Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III, who lost his re-election bid in last month's primary.

Election-day surveys of voters as they left their polling place suggested that many were more concerned about stopping Mr. Duke than returning the roguish Mr. Edwards to power for a record fourth term.

Edwards voters cited economic and racial issue as their principal concerns, according to the exit poll.

Mr. Duke carried predominantly white rural parishes in the northern and western part of the state.

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.

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