Polls Show Duke Could Win Runoff Louisiana Voters Distrustful of Democrat Edwards; White House Position Key to Outcome. UNITED STATES POLITICS

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COULD it really happen? Could David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, be on the verge of winning the governorship of Louisiana?

Mr. Duke, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, has pulled within four points of the front-runner, former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Experts call the outcome a tossup.

"This has the prospect of being a very close election," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, who has conducted extensive surveys in Louisiana. "People who don't take the possibility of a Duke victory seriously ought to think again."

Other political analysts, speaking anonymously, say they now expect Duke to win the Nov. 16 contest, although narrowly.

A Duke triumph, laced with racial overtones, would send a shock wave through American politics, and could prove embarrassing to both the Republican Party and President Bush.

Duke calls himself a Republican. But his reputation - he once paraded in a Nazi uniform, for example - conjures up images of bigotry and demagogery. Even so, his message, attacking welfare handouts, minority set-asides, and illegitimate births, stirs some white voters.

Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, says Duke's excellent prospects are something of a fluke. Ordinarily, he would be far behind because he is extremely unpopular with most Louisiana voters. A just-released Mason-Dixon poll, for example, found that 54 percent of the voters say they would never vote for Duke under any circumstances.

Yet Duke still has a chance because his opponent, Mr. Edwards, is even more unpopular with many Louisianans. In the 1980s, Edwards was tried on racketeering charges, but eventually was acquitted.

Analysts say many citizens, disgusted by either choice, will sit out the election. Others will vote for the one they dislike the least.

Tim Gallagher, a vice president at Mason-Dixon, says the outcome rests with undecided voters, most of whom cast ballots for the current governor, Buddy Roemer, in the primary. Mr. Roemer finished third in that contest.

Mason-Dixon found that among undecided voters, 70 percent feel that Edwards's past is even worse than Duke's; 58 percent believe Duke is more trustworthy and honest.

Dr. Parent says he is "stunned" by those numbers from Mason-Dixon, and he blames the White House for softening public attitudes toward the kind of racism that Duke expresses. Republican appeals to subtle racism, as expressed in the famous Willie Horton ad for the Bush campaign in 1988, have cleared the way for demagogues, Parent says.

"The foundation {for Duke's campaign} was laid by {Ronald} Reagan and Bush," Parent charges. "All of a sudden it was all right for the South to be racially divided. Reagan's and Bush's appeal to Southerners was tacitly and subtly racist.

"Some down here have been appalled for 10 years at {the Republicans'} racially tinged arguments. In the short run it helps politically, but in the long run it comes back to haunt you. …