NEW ORLEANS, OCT. 7 -- David Duke emerged from the Senate election in Louisiana this weekend stronger than ever despite losing at the ballot box.

By drawing 44 percent of the total vote and nearly 60 percent of the white vote against three-term Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D), Duke sent a message of racial resentment across the country and shocked Republican leaders into the sobering realization that the former Ku Klux Klansman has become a formidable, if unwanted, force within the party.

"David Duke is now the Freddy Krueger of the Republican Party," said Loyola University (New Orleans) political scientist Stan Makielski, referring to the inexorable stalker of horror films. "He is the horror show that will not go away. He will be a power in Louisiana for some time to come."

Despite being outspent 3 to 1 and having the establishment of both political parties against him, Duke -- who draws not only on racial resentment but also the indignation of workers who have suffered a long recession -- came close to forcing Johnston into a November runoff.

He probably would have accomplished that stunning feat had not the official Republican candidate, Ben Bagert, dropped out three days before the election. As it was, Duke carried 20 of Louisiana's 64 parishes, clobbered Johnston in white working-class districts, ran even with him in predominantly white middle-class suburbs, and lost only because black Louisianans, representing one-quarter of the electorate, voted against him in overwhelming numbers.

Duke conceded to Johnston this morning and said that he would not challenge the results in court, as he had threatened the night before. But he said he will continue his white-power campaign to the next level, hinting strongly that he would run for governor next year against Gov. Buddy Roemer (D). "This cause will not cease here," Duke said. "This is just the beginning, not the end of a political odyssey."

Since his election to the Louisiana House as a Republican nearly two years ago, Duke, with his past ties to the Klan and his association with American Nazi Party figures, has been an embarrassment to both the state and national GOP leadership. He was censured by the Republican National Committee and shunned by Louisiana party leaders. With the party in disarray after Bagert's collapse, Duke said today he and his supporters will strive to rebuild the Louisiana GOP in their own image.

Charles Black, a Republican consultant serving as spokesman for the RNC, said the national party would not embrace Duke under any circumstances. "We've been pretty clear about that," Black said. "We'll be against him in any setting he's running. Anywhere and any time and any place."

Duke's strong showing raised several questions of national significance, the first being whether his popularity reflected conditions unique to Louisiana or sentiments of a wider scale. Political experts believe that Louisiana has some unusual characteristics that helped Duke: a longstanding attraction to populists, from Huey P. Long to Edwin Edwards; one of the least-educated electorates in the nation; and a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.

But these characteristics are shared, to some extent, by other poor southern states. There is also a widespread belief that Duke's message transcended Louisiana.

"I think we will see candidates in other places being more blunt about racial issues," said University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell. "He is the strongest voice of white backlash that we have heard, but there will be more voices. Most whites in America are opposed to affirmative action, which was Duke's key code issue for expressing racial resentment."

In picking up nearly 60 percent of the white vote, said Loyola's Makielski, Duke was "playing to the racial polarization that is cropping up in so many other places around the country. It was some of what you saw with John Silber {the conservative Democrat who stunned the political establishment by winning the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary last month}. Duke and others are tapping into a sense of frustration that many white voters are feeling."

Who are these Duke supporters? Saturday's election underscored the point that they are not all stereotypical country rubes and uneducated rednecks. Duke picked up 605,681 votes against Johnston, more votes than Roemer received when he won the governor's race in 1987.

Joseph Thibodeaux, a 69-year-old federal worker from Breaux Bridge, voted for Duke. "I don't believe in cross burning; I've never seen one," he said in regard to Duke's Klan past. On the other hand, Thibodeaux said, he did not hold such associations against Duke. "I have some very good friends who are Masons," he said, seemingly equating Masons and the Klan.

Thibodeaux said he agreed with Duke that affirmative-action programs were unfair to whites and that the government spent too much money on welfare programs. He said he also liked Duke because he took on the political establishment. "It's time for a change," he said. "I'd like to clear them all out -- from ward constable to president. The government is in favor of rich people and minorities -- not me."

One of the paradoxes that both parties encountered in trying to squelch a populist demagogue of Duke's sort is that the more they exposed him, the more his believers felt that he and they were being victimized by the establishment. Duke neatly turned the attacks around, telling his supporters: "Remember, when they smear me, they are really smearing you."

If Duke decides to run for governor next year, it would set up the possibility for an extraordinary cast of candidates. Roemer, elected as a reformer three years ago, has had his troubles with the legislature, and his popularity has diminished somewhat, though most polls still show him with a 60 percent approval rating. Looming in the wings is Edwards, the former three-term, good-times governor who wants his old job back.

"Imagine Roemer, Edwards and Duke all running for governor," said Makielski. "It is, even for Louisiana, perhaps too much to imagine."