NEW ORLEANS — THANKS TO the voters of Louisiana, President Bush and the Republican Party have avoided the awkward embarrassment of having to deal with David Duke as a Republican governor. But they are going to be living with him one way or another all through the 1992 campaign. At the most obvious level, it is likely tht Duke will seek another elective office next year. It is the way the one-time Ku Klux Klan leader makes his living. No one would be surprised if he enters a few Republican primaries against President Bush next spring, perhaps several of the southern primaries March 10.
A Duke presidential campaign would pose no direct threat to Bush. But it would raise the possibility of Duke's appearing at the Republican convention in Houston next summer with a clutch of delegates and demanding to be heard -- or at least put to a vote on the floor. The Democrats clearly would be delighted.
But the Duke phenomenon will have more significant, if less obvious, effect on the nature of the campaign debate. President Bush is going to have to be extremely careful that he doesn't talk about "values" and "liberals" -- as he so likes to do -- in terms that anyone might equate with Dukism. There will be no opportunity for another Willie Horton issue.
At the same time, however, it is clear that Duke has uncovered a mother lode of political gold in the angry resentment lower-income white voters feel about policies they believe use BTC their tax money and affirmative action programs to give blacks special treatment. Although Duke was buried here by Democrat Edwin W. Edwards, he did win a majority -- about 55 percent -- of the white vote.
And no one, including Edwards himself, would claim that his landslide 61 percent of the vote was an affirmation of Democratic liberalism. On the contrary, polls taken during the final two weeks of the campaign and of voters leaving the polling places made it crystal clear that Duke was rejected because of the fear his election would further depress the economy of a state already in serious trouble.
Because of his outlandish personal history, Duke was simply too bizarre a figure to be installed in Baton Rouge. But that is not the same thing as saying that he was considered dead wrong in his attacks on affirmative action and welfare programs. As Duke himself put it, "We have lost but the message goes out loud and clear across Louisiana and this whole country."
That lesson is not going to be lost on other politicians next year. Moreover, they will have two things going for them that are quite different and advantageous. For one thing, those candidates will not have the history as American Nazis that can be used to deny them political respectability.
Beyond that, there are few states other than Louisiana -- only Mississippi and perhaps South Carolina -- with the potential for -- turning out a huge black vote such as Edwards received. In the election here Saturday, 80 percent of blacks went to the polls, about 5 percent more than white participation and the reverse of the usual pattern here of black voting running 10 to 15 percent below that of whites.
That lesson was clear last year when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina defeated a black Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt, by exploiting the affirmative action issue late in the campaign. Blacks mobilized behind Gantt, but in North Carolina they represent only about 20 percent of the vote, compared to 28 percent here this year. And Jesse Helms, although widely detested by liberals, was not seen by most whites as beyond the pale.
The president already has shown some signs of reacting to Duke. After months of deriding every civil rights bill as a "quota bill," Bush suddenly found one he could approve immediately after Duke qualified for the runoff here by running a strong second in the first primary.
But the Republicans and President Bush cannot escape some tarnish from Duke. The stories he told on the campaign trail about welfare abuses were remarkably similar to those Ronald Reagan told for years. His opposition to affirmative action was no different from that expressed for 11 years now by Republican administrations in Washington.
Given the way the white vote split here, it would be naive to believe Bush, who is usually willing to do whatever it takes, won't use those issues next year. But the David Duke experience means he will have to do it very carefully.