Now that the New and Improved David Duke has lost yet anotherstatewide race in Louisiana, it is time to reassess his claim to significance. Mr. Duke, trounced by a resounding 300,000 votes in a race against a governor who himself was thrown from office four years ago, still managed to shake the political prognosticators. Noting that Mr. Duke drew contributions from many states while Gov.-elect Edwin Edwards only had support at home, people who should know better solemnly opine that ''now, his message is national.''
Say what? It used to be that the guy who raked dollars outside local boundaries, won his biggest audience outside and covered his post-trouncing blues by chatting up outsiders about what he'd do on the next go-round was recognized as a carpet-bagger. The people of Louisiana spoke louder than anyone outside their state seems to have heard when they gave their support to Mr. Edwards, more than 1 million strong on the winning side.
After the last Duke loss a year ago, this column noted that the Voting Rights Act had changed the landscape for race-baiting politicians, and it's clear that the Act is still at work. Blacks, almost a third of Louisiana voters, came out 80-percent worth and, together with whites who kept their heads, swamped what the prognosticators thought would be a close race.
But not all pundits were off base. Thanks are especially due to syndicated columnist Garry Wills, for pointing out that Mr. Duke's ''new'' message is merely George Wallace's 1968 rhetoric warmed over. Simmering white hostility over black advances in civil rights, minority social advances in general and the state of the economy reached its true high point in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon's ''Southern strategy'' of 1968, tapping into the animosity Wallace worked so hard to encourage, had shown the way.
But that hostility was never hidden. The commentators of the 1990s may be forgiven for thinking so, but America's blacks have never forgotten the White Citizens' Councils of the segregated South, or their John Birch Society siblings. Racial animosity was clearly evident in Louisiana's gubernatorial race, where Mr. Duke won more than half of the white votes while losing. President Bush played to this hostility with Willie Horton in 1988, and he reached for it again with his flip-flops on the Civil Rights Act.
That disgraceful performance, vetoing the 1990 version, then caving in on Sen. John Danforth's artfully worded compromise after the veto threat had obviously met a trump, then waffling again with a back-door evisceration of rights enforcement in a baldly worded signing statement, won him no credit anywhere. Mr. Bush backed right down after a storm blew up over his attempt to win by fiat what he had lost in the Congress, but by that time even his signing ceremony was being boycotted. Ted Kennedy, a principal co-sponsor, was the only congressional Democrat to attend. So much for the wimp that roared.
What must be recognized, by prognosticators outside Louisiana well as David Duke, is what the sweep of demographics have wrought in the 1990s. George Wallace cut a swath in 1968, but black voting freedom had not fully asserted itself. Look again at that 1990 Census, which shows blacks to be almost one in five voting-age citizens in the South. About half of this decade's black population growth will be in the South, too, so don't look for change to benefit ex-Ku Klux Klansmen.
Blacks are now 31 million of the 250 million Americans. David Duke and his red-faced crowd might like to pull a Wallace, but their down-with-anybody-but-us-white-folks message points shotguns at the nation's 20.1 million Hispanics, too. Ditto for the 5 million Asians, America's fastest-growning minority, whose school-aged children are just learning that their forebears built the railroads, roads and bridges of the West, only to be driven off the continent for the ''Yellow Peril'' they posed. Remember Pearl Harbor? Better remember the Nisei, whose homes, lands and businesses were seized while they languished in concentration camps, while their sons fought for the Stars and Stripes in Europe.
Anybody out there counting knows this is more than one in five Americans, whose presence in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston means insensitive politicians will not survive to reach the big time. Black voting clout in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic states, South and Midwest and Hispanic clout in New York, Florida, Texas, California and Illinois mean that Wallace-style race-baiting, updated with 1990 plastic surgery and code-words by Mr. Duke, will increasingly be repudiated
It really is a new country out there. David Duke can't see it, but he always was looking backward. George Bush doesn't know what to do with it. But the Census figures make it plain that the road ahead will be vastly different from the one America walked before.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.