WASHINGTON — AMERICA may hear a lot more about maverick Republican David Duke. Mr. Duke, a former Klansman, sent a scare through the Louisiana political establishment over the weekend when he captured 44 percent of the vote in the US Senate election. Among whites, his vote reached 61 percent.
Many Louisiana leaders are flabbergasted that Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a man who once paraded in a Nazi uniform, a man who sold pro-Hitler books, could run so strongly against incumbent Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, who won with 54 percent of the vote.
Duke's strong showing was no surprise, however, to those who listened to large, cheering crowds of whites roaring approval of his speeches, and watched them pouring thousands of dollars for his campaign into plastic buckets at Duke rallies.
``As long as David Duke is in Louisiana, we're going to have problems,'' says Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen, a Shreveport businessman and official with the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism.
Duke's next political foray could be a run against incumbent Democrat Gov. Buddy Roemer in 1991. But his long-range target, analysts say, is Washington.
Duke's Louisiana critics charge that he is dressing up subtle racism in a new, palatable form that can be swallowed by whites who are angry about crime, welfare, and a weakening economy. As Mr. Thorne-Thomsen explains it:
``Duke has given a great many whites the opportunity to call blacks `niggers' again. When you get 61 percent Duke support among whites, that is a strong statement, and one that really bothers me.''
Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, says he was ``a little stunned'' by the Duke vote. Professor Parent says Duke's power reflects ``a sense of frustration, perhaps unique here, due to a decade of economic problems. They don't know who to blame. Duke blames someone - blacks - who ironically are even worse off.''
Parent's early analysis of the vote in the Saturday election shows Duke's greatest strength came from low-income whites.
But the professor says another major factor in Duke's success was Senator Johnston's own political weakness. Several analysts say he has lost touch with Louisiana. He angered conservatives when, as they see it, he cozied up to Senate liberals by leading Southern opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, a man greatly admired in Louisiana.
The Duke campaign both embarrassed and humiliated Louisiana Republicans. At first, party leaders renounced Duke's candidacy and fielded their own choice, state Sen. Ben Bagert.
But Republican officials soon saw that with Mr. Bagert in the nonpartisan primary, the anti-Duke vote would be divided, and Johnston would fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off election. Bagert dropped out of the race late last week.
Parent says Duke's campaign indicates that he is ``a little more radical'' than other Southern populists like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. He's also ``a lot more frightening to a lot of people,'' Parent says.
In the end, Duke got nearly twice as many votes as opinion polls predicted - possible proof of what Duke strategists claimed was his ``hidden vote.''
Thorne-Thomsen says Duke ``accomplished everything he wanted except getting into the runoff. ... He never expected to be senator, but he accomplished a lot. He made himself credible.''
Duke told supporters the fight is not over: ``We are going to build a political movement in this country and bring back the rights of the American majority.''
In fact, that's something that worries critics like Thorne-Thomsen. They say much of what Duke talks about - renouncing affirmative action, denouncing forced busing, reducing the birthrate of welfare recipients - resonates well with a large cross section of Americans.
Other candidates, possibly without Duke's Klan background, could leverage his issues to a growing, antiblack political movement, they say. And that could spell trouble for both the Republicans and Democrats.