IN a political career filled with surprises, Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) of Louisiana revealed his biggest surprise yet June 7 when he announced that he would not seek a fifth term as Louisiana's chief executive next year.
Mr. Edwards told lawmakers here in a sentimental speech explaining his decision: ``I want to do something else with the rest of my life.'' That decision signals the apparent end of one of the most controversial political careers in Louisiana history and it creates a leadership void that up to a dozen well-known public officials may move to fill. Edward Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics in New Orleans, says: ``This opens up completely the political picture. Everyone is going to think about running, and anyone could get into the runoff with a small percentage of voters.''
Among the likely contenders are two women who score well in public opinion polls - Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann and State Treasurer Mary Landrieu, both Democrats, and two former Republican governors, Buddy Roemer and Dave Treen.
Some political observers believe that former state representative and ex-Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke might also make another try for the governor's office. In 1991, Edwards defeated Mr. Duke in one of the most well-publicized campaigns in Louisiana history.
FIRST elected governor in 1971, Edwards served throughout the rest of that decade, a period that saw Louisiana reap hundreds of millions in oil-drilling profits, creating a robust state economy.
Edwards returned for a third, turbulent term in 1983. ``The economy bottomed out on him and he was twice indicted,'' says John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Review, who has written two books on Edwards. ``He lost his sure footing, and the public trust in him never returned.''
But in 1992, Edwards swamped Duke with 62 percent of the vote. Even die-hard Republicans, worried about Duke's publicly stated racist and Nazi sympathies, put stickers on their car bumpers with the legend: ``Vote for the Crook: It's Important.'' (Edwards was never convicted.)
Many analysts here believe Edwards' most immediate legacy is a pervasive sense of pessimism over Louisiana's future. Louisiana has one of the lowest per capita income levels and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation in the past decade. Its oil industry is depressed and the state economy continues to falter.
Even prospects of a marginal recovery sparked by the opening of New Orleans' Grand Palais casino later this year, which Edwards strongly supported and said will result in at least 20,000 jobs, has not dented the air of gloom.
``At least twice as many people in the state feel that Louisiana has been on the wrong track compared to those who think we aren't,'' Renwick says. ``There's a big chunk of people who want to see a dramatic change.''
That change could possibly come with gambling - the Grand Palais casino is projected to generate more than $300 million annually. If that prompted an economic recovery, Mr. Maginnis says, it would be Edwards's last laugh.