NEW ORLEANS, OCT. 29 -- In the beginning, there were no more than four or five "Dukies," as they later would call themselves. They were David Duke's original disciples, classmates at Louisiana State University who cheered him on after he delivered his first public diatribe on a local radio station in 1969 and declared that the world's problems were caused by an evil Jewish cabal.

Now there are hundreds of thousands of "Dukies" here, so many that their leader, the man who methodically built a career on his notion of white Christian supremacy, stands a fair chance of emerging as Louisiana's next governor after the Nov. 16 election in which Duke, a Republican, faces former governor Edwin W. Edwards, a Democrat.

Who are the "Dukies" and what motivates them? Those are the two essential questions these days, of as much concern to national political strategists impressed by his ability to stir the populace in an age of public distrust as to those southerners whose lives are most immediately affected by the Duke phenomenon.

The last two elections in Louisiana have shattered the assumption that "Dukies" consisted solely of working-class white racists. In his unsuccessful but nonetheless stunning challenge of Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) last year, Duke picked up nearly 60 percent of the white vote statewide and carried several upper-middle-class suburban parishes. He attracted a plurality of the white vote in the open gubernatorial primary Oct. 19 and knocked Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer out of the race by snatching away from Roemer a significant share of white professionals.

"The Duke phenomenon is the most amazing and for me agonizing thing I've seen in politics," said state Sen. Ken Osterberger of Baton Rouge. "Duke is saying a lot of things that the public wants to hear. He's touching a place in people's hearts and minds that they can relate to, not only in Louisiana but throughout the nation."

Osterberger, a conservative Republican, holds the distinction of being the first politician to face Duke in an election. In 1975, when Duke had just graduated from LSU and was the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he ran against incumbent Osterberger for the image of protecting white women and children against black criminals; and then opposing plans to merge predominantly white LSU with historically black Southern University.

They were in one sense non-issues, Osterberger recalled, because the two candidates held the same positions on them. But Duke understood, even then, how to use issues to touch deeper, sometimes unfocused feelings in the electorate.

Looking back on Duke's style and its growing effect over the decades, Republican Party activist Beth Rickey of New Orleans said recently that she had reached an unexpected conclusion. "The question with Duke was always whether he had changed or the voters had changed," Rickey said. "I've decided that Duke hasn't really changed, but the times have. The times have caught up with David Duke."

The dawn of that new era came less than three years ago when Duke won his first election -- as a member of the Louisiana House from the 81st District in Metairie, a virtually all-white middle-class New Orleans suburb. At his victory celebration at the Metairie Lion's Club on the night of Feb. 18, 1989, there were portents of both Duke's larger ambition and his widening appeal.

When Duke entered the hall that night, the crowd, so large that fire marshals had to keep a few hundred celebrants outside, burst into chants of "Duke for governor!" and "Roemer must go!" There was an ample supply of beer-guzzling good-ole-boys in attendance, but there also were mild-mannered middle-aged couples, tax accountants, store managers, state bureaucrats, doctors, construction superintendents, dentists.

"The biggest problem is people think this is a racist issue. It isn't," Metairie dentist Arthur Sigur said that night. "It's a vote against the incumbents. We're frustrated with a bloated government that doesn't care about us. We don't go around with sheets over our heads or wearing Nazi uniforms."

The middle-class legions of "Dukies" swelled into the tens of thousands when Duke waged his first statewide race for the Senate last year. Many of their inner feelings were revealed in the angry letters they sent in response to a mailing from the Louisiana Coalition, an anti-Duke group.

"So that you may not conclude this writer is some hick redneck," wrote Stewart M. Carpenter, an engineer from Mandeville, "I want to inform you that I hold an MBA degree. . . . Why is it that the NAACP is referred to as a civil rights organization, but the opposite group for the advancement of white people is a racist group? You had better be prepared for the support Duke is getting from all over the U.S. We are sick and tired of run-of-the-mill politicians."

The Senate election prompted a number of efforts to analyze the "Dukies." One of the more extensive post-election surveys was conducted by the Garin-Hart Strategic Research Group for the Center for National Policy. It concluded that Duke's strong showing came in a context of widespread political alienation; that voters believed government had largely abandoned the middle class; that issues of race, especially affirmative action and what was perceived as reverse discrimination, were important but not overriding concerns; and that Duke had used race to exploit deeper resentments.

One purpose of the Garin-Hart survey was to determine whether a progressive politician could challenge Duke for the same white voters -- another look at the eternal southern question of whether populism and racism need go hand in hand. The conclusion was a qualified yes -- a progressive could compete for these votes, but only by also somehow establishing an image of being pro-middle class and anti-special interest while also taking seriously "the breadth of perceptions in Louisiana that affirmative action has become the functional equivalent of reverse discrimination."

Why has Duke had more success than most nonracist populists in the South since Louisiana's own Huey P. Long? "Because demagogues like Duke look like they mean business," said Chicago-based pollster J. Michael McKeon, who studied the Louisiana electorate this year. "The liberals always look like pacifiers and there comes a time when pacificity doesn't work. Nothing soothes the anger, and people are angry."

Duke's gubernatorial runoff opponent, Edwards, considers himself the modern heir of Huey Long, and his past campaigns have been infused with a multiracial populist appeal. But the former three-term governor's support among whites declined steadily in the 1980s as he twice faced trial on corruption charges (he was ultimately acquitted). In his last two races he has been unable to draw more than 15 percent of the white vote. Experts say he will need to more than double that percentage to defeat Duke.

Loyola University of New Orleans pollster Ed Renwick said he found among Duke supporters in the October primary a segment who voted for him precisely because they knew it was outrageous to do so. "It was the old send-the-strongest-message-possible sentiment, very reminiscent of George Wallace," Renwick said.

McKeon said he found Duke picking up middle-class support because of what he termed the "second wave" of unemployment insecurities (the first was during the 1980s energy bust), this time reaching up to people who at one time thought their jobs and lives were secure. "The biggest Duke jump was among people making about 40 G's {$40,000} a year," McKeon said. "For them it was a loss of control issue."

New Orleans University political scientist Susan Howell found that "Dukies" were far stronger in the middle class than in the lower class. Howell's surveys showed Duke trailing Edwards among white voters who earned less than $25,000 a year but almost doubling the Edwards totals among whites who made between $25,000 and $60,000.

Osterberger, who represents those middle-income whites in Baton Rouge, said that while his district went for Roemer in the primary, he could see a strong movement toward Duke and that it was not out of the question that even he -- the man who first defeated Duke -- might join the ranks of "Dukies" on Nov. 16. "It's just a bad situation for me and a lot of other people," Osterberger said. "I have people calling me every day and I can't tell them how to vote. I'm trying to do some soul-searching."