NEW ORLEANS -- The condition of race relations in America is rarely as black and white as it seems these days in Old Metairie, a suburb on the northern rim of New Orleans, where David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is running for a vacant seat in the Louisiana legislature. People here describe their district as though they were boasting of the purity of a bar of soap -- 99.6 percent white. Of the slightly more than 21,000 registered voters, 46 are black. This is the place where, two years ago, the Jefferson Parish sheriff told his deputies to detain any black men walking the streets after sundown. Only recently, when deputy sheriff J.P. Murphy learned that a visitor was from Washington, D.C., he responded: "Hoo, boy. You've got problems up there. In this community, we don't have many colored people. You won't see them out after dark." Duke, 38, president of the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP), a reconfigured version of the old Klan, won the primary election here in January. He ran as a Republican in an open field where the top two finishers, regardless of party, meet in a runoff. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, the horrified reaction that his showing provoked among established politicians and religious leaders, he has a chance to win the runoff Saturday against John Treen, 62, a conservative Republican home builder whose brother, David, once served as Louisiana's governor. Buddy Roemer, the current governor who has dedicated his tenure to improving Louisiana's tarnished image, becomes so discombobulated at mere mention of Duke's name that he can hardly speak. "Oh, God. Duke. Censor. I don't believe in censoring the news, but please don't write about that guy," Roemer, a Democrat, said in a recent interview. "If he wins it will undo in one stupid act everything we've tried to do here in the last year." Those that have mobilized to defeat Duke -- including the Republican National Committee, Roemer and various black, Roman Catholic and Jewish religious leaders -- say they think that voters are going to Duke because they are misinformed rather than because they like his white-power message. Rabbi Gavriel Newman of Beth Israel Temple in New Orleans, who has been watching Duke for years, said, "The problem is that the modern guise of Klan members of Duke's ilk is the two-piece suit, the blow-dried hair and the sweet smile, which seem to serve them very well to hide the inherent racism and the propensity to violence. Unfortunately, people are taken by this." Black civil rights leaders in the New Orleans area have stayed out of the Treen-Duke race and said little about it. Noting that Treen once was active in the State's Rights Party in Louisiana, Llewellyn Soniat, a longtime civil rights activist in New Orleans, said: "This race reminds us of the old cliche during the days when blacks didn't hold public office and few were even registered to vote: You went for the lesser of two evils." Soniat said Duke's emergence "doesn't really mean racism is stronger than ever; it just shows the racism that's always been there, especially in Jefferson Parish." One recent afternoon, as he campaigned door-to-door along William David Parkway, a street that runs through the heart of the district, Duke noted aloud that voters he was encountering did not fit the stereotype of the southern redneck. There were no pickup trucks, shotguns or cowboy boots. The homes ranged from working-class bungalows on one end, near Interstate 10, to white-pillared mansions on the other, near Metairie Country Club, with blocks of comfortable ranch-style homes in between. The residents were a mix of Yuppie lawyers and school teachers, lower-middle-class government employees and senior citizens. "This," Duke said, "is really a microcosm of white America." Although statistics show that 65 percent of these people are registered Democrats, most of them voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Now they are voting for David Duke. Recent telephone polls indicate that Duke is picking up between one-third and one-half of voters who did not cast ballots in the primary. "There are two ways the liberal eastern press can handle this," Duke said during a walking interview, momentarily assuming the role of media analyst. "They can say, 'These are real nice people, but they don't know the real David Duke.' Or they can say, 'These people really do know the real David Duke and . . . . ' " He let the thought finish itself, unspoken. To search for an answer on the streets of Old Metairie is to venture deep into the troubled souls of white folks. In a white clapboard house at the corner of Ridgewood and Stroelitz lives Earline Pickett, 72, the wife of a retired oil engineer. When Duke came to her door during the campaign, she said, it ranked with the most thrilling moments of her life. "He's honest, and he's not trying to hide any of his past," she said. "He's been open about it, and he just makes you like him. I liked him from way back. That affirmative action, he wants to get rid of it. I think if blacks are not qualified for anything, why should they be given a better chance?" Did it concern her that Klan ideology attacked not only blacks and Jews but also Catholics? "Oh, heck no!" Pickett said. "We're all Catholic around here. This bishop in New Orleans," she said, referring to Archbishop Philip Hannan, who recently delivered a radio message attacking Duke's past, "I never did like him. He likes colored people. He says we should love colored people. But they've been different from the beginning, and God must have had a reason for making them that way." Working in the garden of her big gray house on William David Parkway is Sue Wegmann, a teacher who looks and talks like the quintessential baby boomer, concerned about the education of her two children and the quality of the social and cultural life in her community. At first, she declined to discuss her feelings about Duke, saying: "I can't say it out loud. I also teach. People were surprised he got in the runoff, but somebody voted for him." Eventually, Wegmann revealed that she voted for him and was thinking of doing it again, fully aware of his role in the Klan and the NAAWP. "I'm more interested in what he'll do than what he's done in the past," she said. "Out of the two candidates, because of his youth, he'll have more energy. It's fresh blood or whatever. It wouldn't influence me one bit what he did in the past." Wegmann said Duke appealed to her on the issues, too. She cited his opposition to affirmative action and minority set-aside programs and his promise to crack down on what he calls welfare abuse. "If they are willing to work for it, like us, then they deserve it," she said. "But the ones who sit out on their front porch and don't try, that aggravates us." On the other side of the street and a few blocks down, Marie La Hitte greeted Duke at her front door with great enthusiasm. "I voted for you in the primary," she said. "I liked your no-tax position, and I always thought that just because someone was in the Klan doesn't mean they still think that way. But then, jeepers, I don't know, all these people started saying things about you, and it got scary. I saw Atwater on TV. Boy!" (Lee Atwater, new chairman of the Republican National Committee, said his party had no use for Duke and would do everything possible to defeat him.) "Well, ma'am, they know people agree with me on the issues, so they're trying to attack my character," Duke responded, his voice soft and soothing, his green eyes shining. "They're afraid of me because I'm honest." "Yeah, you're right," La Hitte said. "But I don't know. This thing sure is getting dirty. I'm glad you came by. I feel better about you now." As Duke moved to the next house, La Hitte was asked whether she knew that he was the president of the National Association for the Advancement of White People. "The what?" she said. "Advancement of whites? I thought white people were advanced enough and didn't need help. It's the black people that deserve all the help they can get. Advancement of whites? Oh, boy. I don't know now. I don't believe anything in the papers. Now I don't know." Duke is appealing on many levels. He is young, articulate, soft-spoken and courteous. Author Patsy Sims devoted a chapter to Duke in her 1978 book, "The Klan," tracing his career from his college days at Louisiana State University, where he espoused Nazi propaganda, to his rule as imperial wizard, when he called the mayor of New Orleans a "coon" and said of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime: "There is something to learn there in terms of how to fight and how to overcome the Jewish power that exists." Yet Sims said that, as she spent more time with Duke, their relationship "to me became almost that of an old friend whose views and actions I didn't share or condone but whom I found likable and interesting." For a time, in fact, she said she thought that he was not really a Klansman but an infiltrator, an agent. At times during this campaign, Duke seems less like a white supremacist than a typical conservative Republican. His campaign brochures stress his antitax stand, and telephone canvassers at his headquarters do not mention racial issues during their calls. Their standard line is: "As you know, David Duke is the candidate who pledged to protect the homestead exemption. He is opposed to any new tax increases. He won the most votes in the primary, and we'd like to ask if we can count on your vote for the runoff." But there is little question about the essence of his appeal. "It is a thinly veiled message of racism," said Treen, his opponent. "And people like it." On Duke's posters -- many of them left from his race for president as a Democrat last year, when the party did not want him and party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. barred him from the debates -- the slogan shouts, "Turn the Tide." The "tide" is a metaphor for the growing numbers and power of blacks and other minorities in America. The NAAWP advocates stemming the birth rate in the black community, and Duke once led a small posse of supporters to the Mexican border where, in a feeble publicity stunt, they said they would keep immigrants from sneaking in. "His literature is like a dream," said JoAnn Kimberlin, a volunteer at Duke headquarters who was recently laid off from her oil-company job. "He talks about getting people off welfare, all these women who spend their money on drugs, not their kids. But you know what David's problem is? He says what everyone thinks but is afraid to say." "They wish they could say it," said another office aide, Beverly Randall. "But they think it's not Christian." Duke said he quit the Klan 10 years ago and formed the NAAWP not because his philosophy or ideology had changed but because the Klan "just had a negative image that we could not change." The NAAWP, he said, promotes the same ideas as the Klan did when he ran it. Although Duke was convicted in 1977 for inciting to riot at a rally in New Orleans, he said he does not now and never did condone violence. Political and religious leaders working against his election express hope that his political transformation peaked with the primary, in which he won 33 percent of the vote. Ten years ago, when he ran for the state Senate from suburban Baton Rouge, Duke also won about one-third of the vote, and some experts considered that his maximum. "You know the old saying," said Neil Curran, an adviser to Treen. "Sometimes God punishes people by giving them what they think they want. It could happen in Metairie."