Republicans worry about Duke's potential for mischief On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 05, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington DAVID DUKE'S challenge to President Bush doesn't deserve to be taken seriously as a threat to the president's renomination. But it has the potential for causing enormous political mischief for the Republicans.

Duke's goal is clearly to win enough delegates to the Republican convention in Houston next summer so that he can demand to have his name placed in nomination, a crushing embarrassment for the party of Abraham Lincoln. But if the Republicans, as is likely, simply shut him out, Duke can be expected to use that as evidence that the political establishment is once again ganging up on the little people.

It is a win-win situation for Duke. Either he attains the political respectability of a role in the Republican Party or he can play the political martyr to followers who already are hostile to the power structure.

Although Duke claims he will compete almost everywhere, the ** states in which he will concentrate his primary challenges generally meet three political requirements.

First, he needs some states where conservative Democrats, such as those who gave him 55 percent of the white vote for governor in Louisiana last month, can vote in a Republican primary. That "open primary" group would include several states he has targeted for next March 10 -- Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The priority Duke is giving to such voters was clear in the way he used his declaration of candidacy to urge "every working person" to become a Republican and desert "the Democratic Party of Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown" -- an obvious attempt to play off the view of Southern conservatives that the Democratic Party has become "the black party." His targets are clearly the "Reagan Democrats" who have been vital to Republican success in presidential elections.

Second, he needs states in which he could get a few delegates one way or another. That means states that award some delegates on a proportional basis -- so that he would be entitled to a share even while losing to Bush -- such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Duke has also targeted states with winner-take-all rules in which he would have a reasonable chance of carrying one or more congressional districts. That group would include Georgia, Oklahoma and -- less likely but possible -- Texas and Maryland.

Finally, Duke needs states with a significant enough black population so that his appeal to white racial resentment will have an audience either statewide or in some areas. Most of the states in which Duke intends to concentrate meet that criterion. And a few others have relatively small black populations but concentrations in some areas -- west Tennessee, for instance -- that might be fertile ground for Duke in exploiting white resentment.

Duke obviously is skipping New Hampshire not because the Feb. 18 primary is too early to allow him to organize but instead because the state has such a tiny black population -- less than 1 percent -- that there is no significant racial resentment Duke can exploit.

For the Republicans, the most chilling facet of his announcement press conference was his clear declaration that he would not "rule out" an independent, third-party candidacy in the general election. Again, there is no reason to imagine the former Ku Klux Klan leader could become a serious player in the November election. The history of such efforts tells us over and over again that Americans are wedded to the two-party system and resist "wasting" their votes on alternatives.

But that doesn't apply to everyone, as George C. Wallace demonstrated in 1968, when he carried only five Deep South states but drew enough blue-collar Democrats away from Hubert H. Humphrey to make the difference in New Jersey and possibly in Illinois. This time would be different, however, because those same voters are now the ones the Republicans need to provide a margin in several Southern states they have become accustomed to winning in presidential elections.

It is quite possible the Duke challenge will amount to nothing. It is unclear whether he can prosper in a situation where he doesn't get the kind of concentrated press attention he has enjoyed in his Louisiana races. Voters may see him in a different light when they weigh his history against the office he is seeking.

At the least, Duke has the potential to give Bush and the Republican Party some anxious moments.

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