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The troubling success of David Duke

David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who is running for governor of Louisiana, was standing at the door of a downtown Baton Rouge civic club, shaking hands after a speech. Most who filed past gave him a quick pump and a polite, "Good speech," or "Good luck on the campaign." But one white-haired woman lingered. After chatting for a moment, she suddenly leaned over and said quietly, "I voted for you last time, and I'm going to vote for you again."

That is precisely what many Louisianans fear. Last year, Duke, a state representative from suburban New Orleans, got nearly 44 percent of the votes in a race against U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston, a three-term incumbent. More than half of the whites voted for him. The fear is that if Duke comes close to the same vote total in this year's governor's race, it will throw Louisiana politics into chaos and seriously damage the state's image.

What accounts for David Duke's success? How could a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a man who has been filmed in front of a burning cross, his arm raised in salute, shouting "white power," go so far in politics in the 1990s?

Some of Duke's appeal is peculiar to Louisiana. Since the early 1980s, Louisiana's economy has been in a tailspin, driven down by the falling price of oil and natural gas, the state's economic mainstays. One of the hardest hit groups is Louisiana's white working class, and Duke's attacks on affirmative action and the welfare system have given vent to some of the anger over the economy.

But much of it is Duke himself. Handsome, cool and articulate, David Duke is America's first television demagogue.

He is a startling contrast from southern demagogues of the past. Lester Maddox, George Wallace and Ross Barnett, the segregationist governors of the 1960s, were cardboard characters who were surprisingly inarticulate off the stump and sweatily uncomfortable making small talk.

Duke is not like that. On the stump, he is direct, soft-spoken and eerily reasonable. On television, he comes across as calm and thoughtful. What he says in speeches _ that affirmative action is unfair, that welfare creates many of the problems it is intended to solve _ is not outside the mainstream of political discourse. And in conversation, he's no cardboard character. He is amiable, worldly and charming _ exactly the opposite of what you expect from a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Then how does Duke do it? How does such a buttoned-down character arouse such passion and attract such attention?

For one thing, there is his past, which he excuses by saying he was young and "looking for answers" in the wrong places. He is being disingenuous. Duke's involvement with the Klan, neo-Nazi groups and all the rest is what gives his words their double meaning. When Duke talks about the "rising welfare underclass" as America's greatest problem, his audiences know what he really means.

And for all his television savvy, Duke uses some rather traditional demagogic devices. He turns legitimate fear and anger _ over the economy, crime, inadequate schools _ against innocent targets. At a time when jobs are precious in Louisiana, Duke finds it easy to persuade white workers that, somehow, affirmative action will rob them one day of a job or a promotion.

The chances of Duke actually being elected governor are slim. Most political observers predict he will finish third or fourth in the October primary with about 20 percent of the vote. Embarrassing but not fatal for Louisiana's image. As for last year's Senate race, most agree it was a fluke. Bennett Johnston was an unpopular incumbent who ran a clumsy campaign, and Duke was a handy way to register a protest.

More worrisome is what Duke's rise may say about the future. If Duke has found a way to marry old-fashioned demagoguery with the cool, blue glow of television, will others follow? And if a person with Duke's record can get so far, will demagogues with a more savory past go even further?

As for Duke, he is limited to being a protest candidate. What has given him such success _ the television image he projects _ also works against him. No matter how he tries, Duke finds it impossible to explain away the photographs of him in Klan robes. "I've made mistakes in my life," he says, "but I've grown and evolved."

It isn't convincing. As Edward J. Steimel, a retired business lobbyist in Baton Rouge, puts it: "I know about Saint Augustine," the notorious sinner who became one of the greatest Christian theologians. "But I don't expect Saint Augustine to arise out of David Duke."

Otis White is a staff writer for St. Petersburg Times.