NEW ORLEANS — Democrat Edwin W. Edwards crushed former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Saturday to win a Louisiana governor's election keenly watched around the nation as a referendum on race relations and voter discontent.
With 99% of the precincts reporting, Edwards, a three-time former governor, defeated Duke, a Republican state representative, by 61% to 39%. The vote totals were Edwards 1,061,233, Duke 681,278.
More than 78% of Louisiana's 2.2 million voters cast ballots in the race, easily surpassing the previous turnout record of 69.56% set in the 1979 gubernatorial election.
Edwards' decisive triumph capped an often bizarre contest. It pitted Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer, against Edwards, whose last term as governor in the mid-1980s was marred by federal racketeering charges against him.
In a passionate but grave victory speech Saturday night, Edwards declared: "Tonight Louisiana became first, first to turn back the merchant of hate, the master of deceit."
But, in chilling tones, he added: "I say to all of America tonight that there will be other places and other times where there will be other challenges by David Dukes. They, too, will be peddling bigotry and division as their elixir of false hope. . . . America be on guard!"
In his concession speech at a Baton Rouge hotel, Duke remained defiant, declaring: "The candidate may have lost, but the message goes out loud and clear across Louisiana and across this whole country."
Duke said he had "no plans to run for any other office." But he quickly added: "I must say, that's at this time."
Still, for Duke, Saturday's result represented a stunning rebuke that saw him lose ground from the 44% of the vote he received in a 1990 challenge to U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Duke was even routed in his home base of Jefferson Parish, polling only about 40% of the vote there.
"He's right that Louisiana voters sent a message, but it was a rejection of Duke and the politics he stands for," said Lance Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an anti-Duke group.
At Edwards' headquarters in New Orleans' Monteleone Hotel, a huge crowd spilled out from the ballroom into the lobby and out into the street beyond. News of the landslide victory ignited a Mardi Gras-like celebration, with supporters singing and dancing through the street.
Emotions ran almost as high during the day. Voters surged into polling booths to settle an election that had mesmerized, revolted and ultimately exhausted the state. Black voters came out in vast numbers in an effort to stop Duke, who based his campaign largely on such racially tinged issues as welfare reform and affirmative action.
Duke, whose background has dominated the race, voted at a local elementary school under a canopy of television lights and microphones that followed him to the edge of the booth.
As is his custom, Edwards spent Election Day out of sight, talking with precinct leaders from his headquarters after voting by absentee ballot.
The campaign drew reporters from around the world and sparked interest from around the nation.
Duke's crusade attracted hundreds of financial contributions from California, New York, Florida and Texas. Out-of-state volunteers also traveled to Louisiana to join his effort.
Those rallying to Edwards' side included Bob Mulholland, political director of the California Democratic Party, who on Friday flew to Louisiana to deliver a $1,000 check to the former governor's campaign and knock on doors in the get-out-the-vote drive.
"If Duke wins, he will make people who are serious racists feel they can do a lot more public things," Mulholland said.
Many Louisianians have been anguished by the critical shadow Duke's ascent has cast over their state, and among his opponents the drive to see him repudiated has become as much a moral as a political necessity.
"I want to make sure you understand we're all not full of hate, we're all not racists," New Orleans attorney Rick Duplantier told a reporter last week. "He's just not what we stand for down here."
And yet others across the state have heard echoes of their own deepest beliefs in Duke's astringent attacks on government, affirmative action and welfare recipients, and his promise of "equal rights for everybody."
"I want him to be governor because it's about time for somebody to stand up for white people," Frank Stieffel, a shipyard worker from Metairie, said as he cheered at a high-spirited Duke rally Friday night.
Such competing viewpoints dazed and divided the state to a degree unmatched by any political campaign in memory. The preserve of Huey Long and Earl Long, of fragile alliances and lasting enmities, Louisiana has long experienced politics as drama, politics as farce, but for many here this is something new: politics as tragedy. "It's the most frightening thing I've ever experienced," said Duplantier. "It's a civil war."