NEW ORLEANS -- -- The United States Senate may well have to polish up a seat next January for a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

David Duke, elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives only last year, suddenly seems virtually certain to finish second in the Oct. 6 open primary for the U.S. Senate and could do well enough to qualify for a runoff. Combined with the collapse of fellow Republican Ben Bagert's campaign, the stage may be set for a November showdown with Democratic incumbent J. Bennett Johnston.

Absurd as it seems, Congress a year from now could be debating constitutional safeguards for the Stars and Bars in addition to Old Glory.

How could an obscure racial crank move so rapidly up the political ladder? For all the anguished howls of disbelief that accompanied Duke's election from suburban Metairie, state and local Republicans refused to confront the Duke phenomenon and instead, by their silence, nurtured it. The wily rabble rouser was given the opportunity to bring his racist message in from the disreputable cold. Devoid of racial epithets, Duke's crusade against a "parasitic" underclass and affirmative action both camouflaged and stimulated divisive racial animosities.

The refusal to deal with Duke was fostered by the propagation of several myths that attributed his popularity to everything but his transparent racial appeals. Defeated 81st District opponent and fellow Republican John Treen dismissed Duke as a "master of deception" who had entranced voters into believing he was a mainstream candidate. Others downplayed Duke's explicit racial message and claimed his success was merely a reflection of fierce local resistance to outside interference in the campaign.

Well, not quite. Duke is a longtime Metairie and Jefferson Parish resident whose political aspirations and Klan affiliation were well known. And he won a majority of an extraordinarily high 78-percent turnout. As for the "local resistance" theory, the outside pressure came rather late in the game, after Duke led the field in a stunning primary victory.

The chilling fact is that the people of Metairie knew exactly who David Duke was: Duke was no fluke. His victory represented the electorate's reasoned judgment -- given George Bush's "Willie Horton" campaign -- on the new respectability of his message.

Why have the residents of one of the state's richest parishes and a legislative district that is 99.6 percent white remained mesmerized by racial issues? Duke's rhetorical grand wizardry notwithstanding, Jefferson Parish's whites hardly seem driven by status as an oppressed minority. Instead, there resides in the 81st District a body of sentiment that has never accepted the civil-rights revolution and has found a leader willing to attack it at its weakest points. White residents' calls for "color blindness" bring to mind the "non-racial" poll taxes, literacy tests and "understanding clauses" that gutted the 15th Amendment for a century.

Despite the disappearance of the crudest public expressions of racial animosity, a deep reservoir of hate and fear remains in the state. Duke has changed just enough -- and the climate has changed just enough -- to turn a repulsive sideshow into a potential main attraction. It remains a dangerous delusion to think that his election turned on anything other than the manipulation and revivification of the most primitive racial feelings.

The obvious discomfiture of the Republican Party over Duke's belated adoption of the GOP produced another fruitful area for breeding misconceptions. Clearly, his opportunism was shameless, and established Republican leaders quickly denounced it. But all of that begs the question of the relationship of the party to its voters. Reading Duke out of the mainstream of Louisiana Republicanism is merely the desperate reaction of leaders who pandered to racism with a wink and a nod and now find things getting dangerously out of hand.

Party affiliations have proven ephemeral, indeed fleeting, when compared to racial divisions. If the Democrats once served as the vehicle for white supremacy and are now identified with the civil-rights movement, we should not be surprised that alienated white voters have switched parties. There is little question that the social upheaval triggered by the civil-rights initiatives of the 1950s and the 1960s was the "Big Bang" that injected new vigor into Louisiana's Republican Party.

Segregationist sentiment manifested itself in the States

Rights Party, an organization that provided, in Ben Toledano, the first serious Republican challenger for the New Orleans mayoralty in the modern era. The initial impetus for Toledano's effort was Moon Landrieu's startling sweep of black precincts in the 1969 Democratic primary; he won the nomination with less than half of the white vote. That display of black power shocked white New Orleanians and, as Toledano put it, "made race an issue." In making unmistakable racial appeals for the white vote in the 1970 general election, Toledano reported that he was "overcome by offers of support" by those who believed that "the time {had} come for a true two-party system in the city." He received an added boost from Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy." Though defeated, Toledano won 41 percent of the vote -- the best showing in this century by a Republican in New Orleans.

The most fertile ground for recruiting Republicans, however, was not the city but the burgeoning suburbs. By 1980, seven out of every 10 whites in the New Orleans area lived in surrounding parishes while eight out of every 10 blacks lived in the city.

Dave Treen, brother of David Duke's defeated opponent, pumped whatever life there was into the fledgling Republican party by making three unsuccessful Metairie-based congressional races against Hale Boggs in the 1960s. One-time chairman of Louisiana's States' Rights Party, Treen appeared at segregation rallies with virulent arch-racists Leander Perez and Willie Rainach. He finally got his break when Democrats protected Boggs's congressional seat by gerrymandering Treen's Jefferson Parish base out of Boggs's district. That turned the suburbs over to the Republicans and Treen, who was elected to Congress four times. Having recanted his earlier support of segregation, Treen in 1980 became the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Treen's regret over his early career certainly reflects the changed climate of the civil-rights era. If local Republicans could still occasionally be caught employing ham-handed racial tactics -- as when senatorial front-runner Henson Moore's 1986 campaign conceived of no better guarantee of partisan success than an attempted purge of black voters -- they muted racial issues even as they sent out anti-black signals.

David Duke's move into the Republican party was thus not without logic. He simply vented much of the unmentionable sentiment that had driven earlier Republican growth. He understood that race, not party, commanded the first loyalty of 81st District voters. The local Republican party leadership had been riding a racist tiger for much of its existence. In an era of lax restraint, economic hard times and escalating racial tensions, the untamed beast broke free and turned on its erstwhile masters.

Only his sheer dismay can explain Dave Treen's claim that Democrats were responsible for Duke's success. In his tortured effort to use voter-registration figures to tie the former Klansman's support to "Democratic" precincts, however, Treen neglected to mention that the state's open-primary law has drained partisan registration of all meaning. Since 1975, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in a single primary open to all voters; if no candidate wins a majority, the top two finishers meet in a runoff.

It is voter behavior that indicates preferences. And in a district that went solidly for Reagan and Bush, and supported Dave Treen's own career, those preferences clearly lie with the GOP. Tellingly, five of the seven candidates in the 81st District primary were Republicans and they swept 85 percent of the electorate. This is no Democratic district.

There is one final myth: that David Duke himself is the problem. Such was clearly the position of Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater -- and remains that of local party officials. If national Republicans had been pleased to accept the votes and contributions of Duke supporters in the past presidential campaign, being saddled with Duke himself is, well, a little inconvenient. If only Duke had been defeated, all would be well. But it is precisely the voters, not the representative, that the party should be most concerned about. The message as well as the messenger must be denounced. And the leaders of our great parties need to advance a racial agenda that does more than merely assert that "we are not Nazis."

What sort of candidate would the national party settle for? John Treen was offered as the "moderate" choice, but his own political roots extend back to the segregationist States' Rights Party. As candidates, a local reporter noted, Treen and Duke "agree on almost everything." Embarrassed local Republicans condemned only Duke's past affiliations, not his current agenda. Treen's, and later Bagert's, weak effort to "me too" Duke on issues while posing as the only "respectable" candidate ultimately presented the greatest danger. Genuinely shocked by Duke and his popularity, neither offered a substantive challenge.

Duke's rise forces some fundamental questions to the surface. The GOP has broken the Democratic monopoly of the "race problem" and must struggle with it on the right even as the Democrats fumble it on the left. And it must do more than denounce Duke's past.

It is, of course, quite possible to oppose affirmative action and set-asides without being "racist." The Republican vision, moreover, of a society of individuals standing in equal relation to the law in a truly "color blind" society has a great deal of appeal. Republican politicians have been much more successful in presenting a coherent view of what they consider the "good society" than have their confused Democratic counterparts. What they have not displayed is a good-faith effort to achieve what they espouse. If the Democratic Party's "race specific" agenda is all means without ends, the Republicans are all ends with no means.

What Republicans need to do is to refocus the now blurred distinction between conservatism and racism. Indeed, the Duke campaign shows that the connection has become close enough for the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People to masquerade as a mainstream politician. And while it is true that politics makes strange bedfellows, those who find that David Duke has snuggled up to them have an obligation to peek under the sheets.

The Louisiana Republican Party clearly lacks the heart for such self-examination. As the party's 140-member state central committee met in Baton Rouge last September, those made squeamish by Duke's profession of political collegiality offered a motion to censure him for his promotion of racial violence, antisemitism and neo-Nazi philosophies. Party leaders aborted the censure move and even rejected a watered-down effort merely to investigate the allegations. Thus Louisiana's Republicans could not muster the votes to make even a purely symbolic "moral statement" against a man who made his successor as Klan grand wizard a paid staff worker on his campaign, continued to permit the Klan's telephone listing to share his home number and sold Nazi literature out of his legislative office.

When it was all over, censure co-sponsor Beth Rickey expressed "disenchantment" with her party, and David Duke exulted in the defeat of the "tiny, vocal minority" within the Louisiana GOP who had dared to express moral reservations about keeping his political company. Emboldened by his victory and a questionnaire returned by Republican regulars that showed considerable support for a race against Democrat Johnston, Duke then announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate.

Finally, the craven posture assumed by local Republicans is revealed even by those who hoped to censure the former Klansman. If they took exception to his Nazi leanings and admiration for Adolf Hitler, no one challenged his view of American race relations, and censure co-sponsor Neil Curran took pains to say that his move had "little to do with black-white issues." The party's stance in denouncing Nazism while remaining silent on domestic racism proved nothing more than a transparent effort to buy respectability on the cheap -- an effort made all the more shameful by its abject failure. The Louisiana Republican Party simply remains incapable of establishing any programmatic distance between itself and Duke, and it has never cultivated a base of mass support apart from Duke's racially driven constituency. Even if national party leaders truly want to denounce Duke, the Louisiana GOP has now rendered that posture untenable.

A week ago we might have hoped that the final Duke-Bagert tally would reveal, in cold numbers, the real base of Louisiana Republicanism. Now we don't have to wait. Bagert's candidacy is in total disarray. Last weekend local Republicans took out a full-page newspaper ad denouncing Duke without even mentioning their endorsed candidate, and Bagert's national advisers have jumped ship amid allegations of financial impropriety and polls that show him still mired in single digits. They have clearly decided that six more years of J. Bennett Johnston is better than four more weeks of a Duke campaign. Even if denied the national spotlight of a runoff, however, Duke has raised questions that will not go away. Delivering his message with doe-eyed innocence, the architect of the RepubliKlan party of Louisiana is issuing a challenge to all America.

Arnold Hirsch is a professor of history and urban affairs at the University of New Orleans. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the university.