David Duke's message won't fade Louisiana election issues struck sensitive nerve.

November 18, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

NEW ORLEANS -- Edwin W. Edwards' landslide triumph here has stymied David Duke's quest for political power, at least for the moment. But it would be a mistake to imagine it has dissolved the issues that made Duke a factor in the first place.

As Duke himself put it, "Maybe they were not ready for me, but they were certainly ready for the changes I represent."

In the final days of the long, bitter campaign, Edwards strategists had been saying they wanted to capture at least 60 percent of the vote because they believed a success of that dimension would send a clear and positive signal to the rest of the country. As it turned out, Edwards came away with a resounding 61 percent, but the message in the fine print was far less clear.

Democrat Edwards' election Saturday to a fourth term as governor was fashioned on an extraordinary turnout inspired by reaction against Duke's dark past and the fear Louisiana would suffer serious economic consequences if he became governor.

Turnout reached a near-record 78 percent. Among blacks, who clearly recognized the threat represented by Duke, it reached 80 percent, reversing the usual pattern of blacks voting 10 to 15 percent below whites here. Edwards won 96 percent of the black vote and 45 percent from white voters. Whites who had TC supported Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Democrat-turned-Republican eliminated in the primary a month ago, split 3-1 for Edwards.

But a survey made by the four television networks of voters leaving polling places made it plain Duke was a flawed messenger. Some 89 percent of Edwards voters said they didn't believe Duke had changed the racist views he held as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and as an avowed American Nazi. And 47 percent of Edwards supporters said they were casting their votes mainly as a protest against Duke.

The result ratified the strategy followed by the Edwards campaign of raising fears in the electorate that Duke's election would cost the state heavily in both tourist business and new industry and jobs. In the exit poll, these were cited as far and away the prime concerns of those who voted against Duke.

Duke himself acknowledged as much after the election, complaining that he had been beaten by "economic blackmail" given prominence by what he called "venomous media" in the state. "I was beaten by power," he said.

Nor did Edwards make any extravagant claims for his own comeback to the office he lost to Roemer four years ago in the aftermath of two trials on corruption charges, one of which ended in a hung jury and the second in an acquittal. More than 60 percent of the voters said they believed Edwards has been guilty of political corruption, including 42 percent of those who voted for him.

In declaring victory, Edwards excoriated Duke as "the merchant of hate, the master of deceit." But in a news conference yesterday, he held out an olive branch to those "who voted for David Duke in good conscience." And the flamboyant Edwards promised an administration that would be less free-wheeling than he has run in the past.

"We're going to start with a fresh, clean administration and we're going to keep it that way," he told reporters and supporters at the Monteleone Hotel. "We're going to do this right."

The exit poll showed Duke had struck a sensitive nerve with his emphasis on flaws he sees in the welfare system -- the issue his white supporters translate as liberal government being too willing to help blacks at the expense of their taxes. Almost half of Duke's voters cited welfare as their prime concern.

On this point, Edwards has not been willing to yield -- in part, of course, because of his reliance on black votes. But the 64-year-old Democrat also is convinced the issue is a phony one because it involves far less tax money than Duke leads voters to believe. The day after the voting, Edwards complained that a television network had invited him to appear again with Duke in what he saw as a continuation of a debate settled by the returns.

"I don't want to get into another argument with David Duke about how we can't tell what the weather is because the welfare people are in the way," he said.

But perceptive Democrats here conceded that the welfare-race issue is one that has polarized the electorate by race and class. Among white voters, Edwards scored most heavily with those with the most education and the highest incomes; Duke won heavily among low-income whites who have felt most threatened by the economic distress the state has suffered since oil prices collapsed during Edwards' last term.

The results suggested that there is still a rich opportunity for political exploitation of racial resentment -- on both the welfare and affirmative action issues. Edwards had two advantages that might not apply in other states or other circumstances. One was the fact that blacks cast 28 percent of the total vote, a larger share than in any other state except Mississippi.

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