WHAT is the secret of David Duke's growing political popularity? Youthful, handsome, well-spoken, Mr. Duke has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his political campaigns in Louisiana. Last fall, he got 60 percent of the white vote, but still lost a close election against veteran Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
Now Duke wants to become governor of the Bayou State.
The prospect horrifies leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties. Mr. Duke, a maverick GOP state senator, not only once paraded in a Nazi uniform, he is also a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet Duke's past connections to the KKK seem to make little difference to many Louisiana voters. His strength has grown, especially among middle-income whites.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, says Duke has tapped into a deep reservoir of alienation in Louisiana.
Mr. Garin, president of Garin-Hart Strategic Research Group, worked for the Johnston campaign in 1990. But this year, he returned to Louisiana under the aegis of the Center for National Policy to study the Duke phenomenon.
``Louisiana is not America,'' Garin cautions while discussing Duke's popularity. ``[Louisiana] is a unique political entity, and has gone through a unique experience which is a virtual economic depression for the better part of a decade.''
Using focus groups in Baton Rouge and telephone polling across the state, Garin discovered that there is more to Duke's appeal than racism. And to a great extent, Garin blames Democrats for allowing Duke to increase his political following.
``The Democrats gave David Duke an enormous opportunity to exploit this alienation by their own failure to speak as a party that stands up for middle-class interests against the special interests,'' he says.
The so-called ``special interests'' can mean rich corporations, lawyers, doctors, and government bureaucrats, as well as welfare ``cheats.''
In focus groups, white Louisianians tried to explain Duke's popularity to Garin. They began by speaking of their fears and insecurities. They worried about the decline of local industry, with one young housewife noting, ``America has never experienced doing without.'' A single mother said: ``I hope the economy doesn't fall apart. People are just trying to stay together.''
Duke addresses those concerns, they said. He stands up for the average man against bureaucrats in Washington, big corporations in Louisiana, and welfare ``loafers'' at home, the focus group members said.
One divorced mother said angrily: ``He said everything we've wanted to say for years.... If you stopped the welfare checks, watch who would scramble to get a job.''
A housewife commented: ``David Duke says, If you are going to apply for welfare, okay, but first you need to pass a urine test.... I see food stamps traded for crack right here in Baton Rouge. You should need drug screening to get these benefits. If you did, over half these people would then go get a job.''
Another woman commented on the constant push by state and federal lawmakers for higher taxes. ``They just don't care how much they get out of us,'' she said.
Garin's findings concurred with interviews conducted by a Monitor reporter during last fall's Duke-Johnston campaign. At that time, a communications worker who favored Duke told this newspaper:
``A working man can stand just so much. Government is just take, take, take, with nothing coming back. We're drained.''
In his report, Garin wrote: ``The single most important cause of voters' political alienation is a very strongly held perception that government is no longer concerned about the needs of middle-class people.''
According to Garin's report, the specific areas that are being handled poorly in the view of white Louisianians are:
Taxes, particularly the government's failure to ``make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.''
Jobs and problems of economic instability.
Wasteful government spending.
A welfare system that ``demeans the value of the middle class's own commitment to hard work and self reliance.''
A poor educational system which ``should be the engine of their children's economic opportunity.''
Excessive costs of health care.
Garin notes that ``race was one of the driving forces behind Duke's appeal, but it was not the only one.''
He estimates that 31 percent of Duke's voters were motivated only by race. Another 26 percent were casting protest ballots, often because they didn't like Johnston. About 24 percent were angered by welfare.
The poll found that even people who strongly supported Duke thought his background was unappealing. The report says:
``The biggest point of distinction between Duke and Johnston voters is their willingness to believe that Duke has really changed, and thus excuse the excesses of his past.''
Seventy-six percent of Duke's voters think he has changed his old views. Garin notes wryly: ``American voters do believe in redemption.''