WASHINGTON -- Officially, the Bush White House considers David Duke a non-person, beneath contempt and beyond redemption.
But behind the scenes, the Ku Klux Klansman-turned-Republican could be wielding major influence on presidential decisions for the next year. Mr. Bush may be forced to scramble to protect his conservative political base from Mr. Duke's seductive appeal to the economically squeezed and soured middle class.
The glare of the intense Louisiana campaign gave the former grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer a very public base from which he is expected to launch a bid for the presidency -- #F probably against Mr. Bush next year.
Some political analysts believe that Mr. Duke could draw enough potential Bush votes in Southern states to make him a spoiler in a close race between the president and a Democratic challenger.
Running first in the Southern primaries as a Republican, then in the general election as an independent, "David Duke could draw away a considerable chunk of the Republican coalition . . . and do wonders for the Democratic presidential nominee," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political analyst. "It's a very severe problem for Bush."
"It's a worry, there's no question about that," a senior White House official acknowledged. "The fear is that [Mr. Duke] could become the Jesse Jackson of our party, polarizing and dividing and just generally messing things up."
Another Republican source observed of Mr. Duke: "The guy makes the president's hair bristle."
Senior Bush aides insist that the president will not pander to the deep chord of racial resentment Mr. Duke played so well in the Louisiana governor's race and will continue to shun him as a charlatan with no rightful place in the political system.
But Mr. Bush is expected to move rightward nonetheless, in an effort to shore up a conservative base shaken by the strains of recession and reversals of long-held positions, such as his approval of tax increases last year and a recent compromise on civil rights legislation he earlier contended would prompt hiring quotas.
"The president has got to reinforce his base," said Edward J. Rollins, a former White House political director under President Ronald Reagan. "Each party has about 41 percent of the vote as its base. If the president loses 10 percent of his, he's not likely to pick up from the other side."
Although Mr. Bush will continue to repudiate the darker strains of Mr. Duke's message, he probably will appropriate and tailor to his own use Mr. Duke's appeals to working-class frustration.
"The time-honored tradition for an incumbent dealing with a third-party candidate is to steal their issues," said Frank Donatelli, who also served as political director in the Reagan White House. "You get rid of the racism but become more pro-middle class."
Treading the fine line between overt racism and exploiting the discontent of whites who feel threatened by blacks is familiar turf for Mr. Bush, who played "the race card" in his 1988 campaign and more recently on the quota issue, said Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute at the American University.
But now, she said, "He's got to deal with the economic situation, sending voters a message that he understands what's going on with them. Voters feel that nobody is listening except David Duke."
It could be a big help to Mr. Bush if conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan decides to enter the Republican presidential contest as he is hinting he might, according to several GOP consultants. Mr. Buchanan would be likely to split the disenchanted vote with Mr. Duke and spare the president a one-on-one race with an opponent he'd rather not have to acknowledge.
A tactic the president might use effectively against either Republican challenger is to let Vice President Dan Quayle do most of the dirty work on the campaign trail, particularly in the primaries. A key administration link to the right wing, Mr. Quayle has kept up the unyielding, partisan rhetoric even when Mr. Bush has been elsewhere making deals with liberal Democrats.
"I assume that Quayle has already been assigned to carry most of the burden of the campaign," said Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. "And who could do a better job of responding to either Duke or Buchanan than Dan Quayle?"
Most of Mr. Bush's political advisers play down the Duke factor as little more than a nasty bit of party unpleasantness.
"There's an embarrassment factor" for the president in simply being in the same contest with Mr. Duke, said James Ciccone, a former Bush and Reagan aide who was active in the 1988 campaign. "Everybody gets kind of oily."
Charles Black, a Republican consultant with close ties to the White House who will be involved in the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign, maintained, "There's no political threat to the president. David Duke doesn't have any influence on the president's political future."
Mr. Black said the Bush campaign would spend money, if necessary, to educate voters about Mr. Duke's history, largely as a public service. "He's a certified liar on about 10 different issues," Mr. Black said. "If he wants to run, we'll stomp on him."
But the fact that Mr. Duke was taken seriously by so many voters in Louisiana and campaign contributors elsewhere in the nation makes it more difficult for the White House to dismiss him as a product of the kook fringe.
"What does it say that somebody like that could get even this close" to major elective office, mused Thomas C. Griscom, director of White House communications during the Reagan administration.
"It's a political statement on the frame of mind in the country."