SHREVEPORT, La. — Louisiana voters go to the polls Saturday in a turbulent Senate primary that both parties here view as a political watershed for the state, and perhaps the nation.
At stake is far more than the reelection of Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. With Republican State Rep. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, emerging as Johnston's principal challenger, the race has become "a referendum on hate," said Lance Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an anti-Duke group.
But Duke's chances of forcing a run-off with Johnston in Louisiana's unusual open primary system virtually disappeared Thursday when State Sen. Ben Bagert, the official Republican nominee, dropped out of the race and said he would "reluctantly" vote for Johnston. Bagert's decision came one day after eight Republican senators took the extraordinary step of endorsing Johnston.
Under Louisiana election law, if Johnston receives a majority of the vote Saturday, he will win the race without a run-off in November. To prevent Johnston from crossing the 50% barrier, Duke needed a respectable showing from Bagert.
Unless a last-minute surge provides Duke with a majority, his hopes now rest on the unlikely prospect of the three fringe candidates in the race drawing enough votes to deny Johnston outright victory. Though Bagert's name will remain on the ballot, his votes will not be counted if he files a formal withdrawal statement with the secretary of state.
"This is ending very, very well," Johnston said Thursday after he was informed of Bagert's decision.
Polls taken just before Bagert's withdrawal already gave Johnston a narrow majority. A Mason-Dixon Opinion Research survey released Wednesday found Johnston favored by 53% of those polled, with 26% backing Duke, who was elected to the State House from a suburban New Orleans district last year. Bagert trailed with just 8%. Another 13% were undecided.
Johnston--a three-term veteran more skilled at quiet legislative deal-making than loud public affirmations--has campaigned stressing his success at bringing home federal dollars to the state. But to audiences here, in Lafayette and in Alexandria this week, he spent more time criticizing Duke than selling himself.
His focus reflects the fact that the race revolves almost entirely around Duke, who has shown surprising popularity. In all polls, Duke has stayed close with Johnston among white voters.
Susan Howell, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans, and other local analysts argue that Duke's biggest problem is that many whites responsive to his slashing attacks on affirmative action and welfare are repelled by his service in the klan. Many here believe that Duke's support--after growing steadily through the early summer--was capped in late September when Johnston ran a chilling television ad showing Duke leading a klan rally and giving a stiff-armed Nazi-like salute while chanting: "White victory!"
To broaden his appeal, Duke has toned down his rhetoric and proclaimed his involvement in the klan and other far-right groups a "mistake" that he has outgrown. "I've moderated over my years," he insists.
Critics note that he continued to sell neo-Nazi literature from a bookstore in his office until opponents exposed the practice last year and has maintained ties to individuals in anti-Semitic and other extremist groups.
Physically, Duke himself is unremarkable: tall, blond, and soft-spoken. He is the demagogue from GQ: In an appearance before 350 supporters at a Lafayette nightclub on Tuesday, he wore not the tattered linen of the traditional Southern rabble-rouser, but a crisp white shirt and a snappy blue suit.
His speech itself was restrained and unemotional. Like former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, a man he describes as a political role model, Duke served up a full menu of populist resentments.
When he finished lambasting welfare recipients and foreign aid--familiar villains for the far right--he fired shots at foreign nations that restrict access to U.S. products and political action committees--traditional targets for liberals. One of his loudest ovations came when he declared: "Politics in this nation has been controlled by PACs."
Duke only perfunctorily raises the issues that dominate most other Senate races. He criticizes the federal budget deal reached earlier this week and promises to oppose tax increases. But Johnston has defused the issue by also criticizing the pact as unfair to lower- and middle-income voters and calling for it to be renegotiated.