WHEN David Duke threw his hat into the presidential ring, it was more like a pyromaniac throwing a bucket of gasoline on a bonfire.
Yep, just what America needs in 1992 -- a traveling, racial mini-riot.
If Duke's incendiary press conference was a prelude, his presidential run is going to be a coast-to-coast version of an NHL hockey brawl.
I mean, here was this nervous, blond hustler with his cosmetically chiseled face and smarmy smile announcing he'd run for president in 1992 Republican primaries against George Bush.
Judged by the ruckus around Duke, you'd think you'd stumbled into an Israeli-Arab peace conference.
A woman screamed, "Nazi, you damned Nazi!" until she was bounced from the room.
Hecklers taunted Duke's statement, "You lie! You lie!"
Obviously, David Duke has a gift much like TV talk showman Geraldo Rivera: He magnetizes wackos and kooks who'd love to rearrange his nose with a chunk of furniture.
Bush henchmen have reason to hit Duke early and hard. Duke laid out ambitions Wednesday to pursue Bush "in every primary I can enter." He could be irksome to Bush in seven Southern states, ranging from Texas to Tennessee, where crossover voting allows disaffected Reagan Democrats to join a Duke mutiny. He also aims at Michigan and Indiana in the blue-collar North.
The Bush nightmare is of Duke winning enough delegates to turn the Houston convention -- maybe teaming with Pat Buchanan -- into a televised madhouse. If Duke's followers were squelched at Houston, he would surely run as a third-party candidate. He could chip away at Bush in key states next November. Goodbye, White House.
Ironically, Duke will make Bush tightrope gingerly around those subtle racial innuendoes Republicans used for 20 years to win the South. "He [Bush] can't run as Duke Number 2," said pollster Mark Mellman.
Nixon, Reagan and Bush invented David Duke's message that he's using to haunt the party. He's a Republican version of George Wallace with a plastic nose and a new line of racial con.
Sure, Duke insisted for the 1,000th time Wednesday, "I am not a racist." Each time, though, Duke's patter invoked the Ku Klux Klan ex-wizard's white sheet.
Twice he slammed Democrats -- "the party of Ron Brown and Jesse Jackson." No accident they're two of the party's prominent blacks.
Duke patronizingly said he'd tell the Japanese, "You no buy our rice, we no buy your cars." Later he said he was speaking "broken English."
When he storms about closing American borders to immigrants, he admits he's talking about intruders with the wrong skin color.
But Bush's campaign gurus make a giant error to imagine Duke's appeal is only racial. He hits nerves with a populist, anti-Washington, anti-big government sledgehammer. He drew 56 percent of the white vote in a Louisiana frothing with recession anger.
When times are hard -- that may include most of America in 1992 -- a David Duke makes hay.
Listen to Duke and you hear echoes of other politicians: Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa ("don't send U.S. jobs to Mexico"); Democratic candidate Tom Harkin ("fair trade, not free trade"); Pat Buchanan ("America First") and every Dem who'd slash the Pentagon budget. But Duke adds the specter of whites' losing jobs to blacks with quotes like "the real racists are for a quota bill."
Remember, George Wallace won five states in 1968 with a similar witches' brew of class, race and xenophobia. And Wallace wasn't running during an economic slump.
Duke doesn't really hope to win. Sure, he says, "People didn't think Jimmy Carter could win. I know I'd be a better president than Carter."
At worst Duke can be an embarrassing peril to Bush and a lightning rod for racism in a sour, grumpy 1992.
When his press conference ended, Duke was trapped in traffic by Bush's motorcade. Duke, a bemused outsider, stood on the White House sidewalk and watched Bush's limo whiz pass.
From now on, David Duke will be on Bush's tailpipe. He's rowdy, reckless, and running on the high octane of hate.