NEW ORLEANS -- The professor of German, a gentle scholar named S. James Hintze, opened his first-year language course in January 1969 by asking his students at Louisiana State University to introduce themselves and explain why they decided to study German instead of the more popular Spanish or French.

David Duke, now Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana, sat in the back row next to Fred Hawley, now a professor of criminal justice at LSU's branch campus in Shreveport. Hawley remembers that when the introductions reached Duke that day, he told the class that he was a freshman from New Orleans.

"And why are you taking German, Mr. Duke?" asked Hintze, ambling up the aisle as he chatted.

"Because I want to read the original works of the greatest genius who ever lived," Duke responded.

"Ah," said the professor, smiling and rubbing his chin. "Kant, perhaps? Or Schopenhauer? Goethe? Thomas Mann?"

"Oh, no," Duke said. "Adolf Hitler."

As Hintze slowly backpedaled, face ashen, the other students swiveled in their seats to get a better look at this thin, fidgety, blond-haired freshman who hailed Hitler. "It was a chilling moment," Hawley said recently. "A moment frozen in time."

The David Duke of 1991, trying to maneuver his way into mainstream American politics, does not feel that he should be held responsible for what he was like during those college days when he slept under a red and black swastika banner in his dormitory room at Hodges Hall and spoke and sometimes dressed like a Hitler youth or Nazi brownshirt.

"Those were radical times, the campus was swarming with radical leftists, and I was trying to make a strong case from the other side," Duke said in a recent interview. "We all have things in our past that we regret. What I did then was youthful indiscretion."

Allow Duke time to mature, then, and advance his life's story forward two decades to an August day in 1989. Duke was then 39 and an elected member of the Louisiana legislature from the virtually all-white 81st District in Metairie. He and Beth Rickey, a Republican state committee member from New Orleans, were having lunch at the Ming Palace restaurant on Airline Highway. That summer, Duke had been striving to impress the outspoken Rickey, who had criticized him at party functions. Duke talked to her because he considered her an intellectual challenge; she talked to him because she wanted to learn more about him and eventually expose him.

As Duke consumed his order of moo goo gai pan, he nonchalantly discussed "Six Million Reconsidered," a book that he had brought with him and that claimed the Holocaust never happened. The stench at Auschwitz, Rickey recalled Duke telling her, was not the gruesome result of mass murder but came from a rubber manufacturing plant at the concentration camp.

"What about my father? What were all those dead bodies my father saw at Buchenwald?" asked Rickey, whose father, Lt. Col. Horace Rickey, had served in an Army division that reached the Nazi death camp.

Duke, according to Rickey's account, reacted to the question with a flip of the hand. "He said, 'Oh, those bodies, they died of starvation,' " she recalled. "It was an attitude of disinterest or contempt. Then he got into talking about Rudolf Hess and {Adolf} Eichmann and what a bad deal they got."

When Duke mentioned Josef Mengele, the doctor at Auschwitz who conducted ghastly, pseudoscientific studies of Jewish twins and dwarfs, often excising their genitals and executing them by injecting chloroform into their hearts, Rickey said she dropped her fork and uttered: "Oh, you don't like him too, do you?"

Duke leaned over and, knowing that Rickey was working on her doctorate at Tulane University, said: "Beth, he had a PhD . . . He was a genius. His genetic research on twins was incredible."

Rickey tape-recorded many of her conversations with Duke that summer but not the Ming Palace discussion. She did note it in a diary, however, and dictated her recollections of the conversation onto a tape afterward. Duke dismissed her version of their talks as the accusations of "a liberal trying to smear me." Rickey actually is a conservative who says she voted for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. She has become a leader of the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism, whose sole purpose is to expose Duke and work for his political defeat in next Saturday's election.

David Duke at age 41 is a candidate whose name usually is followed by a parenthetical clause with either an ex or former in it, as in David Duke, the ex-grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, or David Duke, the former Nazi sympathizer. In his gubernatorial campaign and his larger effort to impose himself on the nation, Duke has sought to remake his image into that of an impassioned but reasonable conservative whose concerns reflect those of average Americans.

His popularity combines two forces: one political, the other personal. First, he has attached himself to several issues that have immense appeal to a large share of the predominantly white electorate, particularly his opposition to affirmative action, welfare and taxes. Second, he is an articulate man whose personality seems so at odds with that of the stereotypical Klan member that people who encounter him often find it difficult to reconcile the substance of his past with the style of his present.

But Duke is more than just another politician who has learned how to change with the public mood to further his career. A detailed examination of Duke's writings and statements over the years shows an obsession with one purpose: advancing the cause of white supremacy. Much that he has said and done in recent years to ingratiate himself with voters has been part of a long-range plan conceived and carried out within the context of supremacist ideology.

"We want political power in our country for our philosophy of life," Duke told author Patsy Sims in her 1978 book "The Klan," which includes a chapter on Duke the grand wizard. "This means we've got to get involved more and more in politics." Duke then made a boast to Sims that seemed preposterous then but echoes hauntingly through the years: "I think if I wanted to be a traditional politician, I could do it. I think I could be governor of this state."Early Interest in Race

How did David Ernest Duke take his life down the path of racial extremism? He was born into a comfortable middle-class family July 1, 1950, son of an archconservative oil-field engineer, and an alcoholic mother, according to a recent Duke biography by Michael Zatarain. The family, which also included a rebellious older sister, moved from Tulsa to the Netherlands to New Orleans, where Duke spent most of his childhood.

The biography's first mention of Duke's interest in race and genetics is an odd one: The preteen Duke lived in a "Leave it to Beaver"-style house in New Orleans. A wild rat impregnated one of his pet rats, he said, and Duke became fascinated by the mixed-breed litter. The fuzzy little dark critters, he told Zatarain, were faster than their white mother.

An event of deeper significance occurred when Duke was 14 and one of his teachers in New Orleans assigned him to write a paper defending segregation. During his research, Duke read "Race and Reason: A Yankee View," a methodical tract arguing the supremacy of the white race. Duke has said often that he was attracted by it and began a seven-year reading binge in which he delved more deeply into the ideology of race and genetics, eventually finding Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell's "White Power," books that dominated his thinking during his Nazi-oriented years at LSU.

"That was my radical period," Duke said in a recent interview. "In college particularly, I was a very angry young man."

By Duke's account, his defining moment happened in 1971 when he dropped out of college temporarily for an around-the-world trip. He wrote about part of the adventure in a 1986 article that he entitled, "India: My Racial Odyssey." That article, more than any other document, reveals the inextricable link between Duke's past and present.

During his stay in India, Duke wrote, "the historical reality" of race "slowly began to crowd in on me." He found himself overwhelmed by India's poverty and decay, which he attributed to the inexorable decline in the racial purity of white-skinned Aryans who ruled India long ago. When Duke visited the Taj Mahal, he was overcome by sadness.

"Another feeling came over me as I viewed the Taj Mahal in the sunlight," he wrote. "The rounded dome with its white, bone-like features resembled a huge skull; the spiritual skull of the Aryan people, a cranium that once housed and held talented and powerful minds, but which now only served as the gravestone of a magnificent culture and the genetic treasure that made that culture possible."U.S. 'Grows a Little Darker'

Days later, Duke visited another ancient temple and had an encounter that he said "will forever remain etched in my memory." He saw what he described as a "dark brown, poor little half-caste Indian girl" riddled with sores, besieged by flies, begging for rupees. Duke said he gave the girl his money and "stumbled out into the hot Indian sun with my eyes full of tears."

Here is the lesson that Duke learned from that encounter, as recounted in the article:

"I wonder if, a few hundred years from now, some half-black ancestor of mine would be sitting in the ruins of our civilization brushing away the flies. Every day, our nation grows a little darker from massive nonwhite immigration, high nonwhite birthrates and increasing racial miscegenation, and with each passing day we see the quality of our lives decline a bit more. . . .

"I had already committed myself to the struggle for our racial survival long before I saw that child in the ruins, but that experience changed an intellectual commitment into a holy obligation. I realized in the hot Indian sun that I would never abandon this cause. The flame that burned in me that hot August day in 1971 is white hot and unquenchable."Squeezed From Both Sides

The evolution of Duke's career from that racist epiphany in India to his current campaign for governor follows a logical pattern. His steps were measured by whether they could broaden the appeal of white power. In the 1970s, he thought that the best way to accomplish that was through the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. As Duke told Sims in "The Klan":

"I came to realize that the image of the Klan as radical -- in fact an image which was not really inaccurate -- a very strong anti-nigger image, a very strong anti-Jewish image in the long run may not be a political disadvantage. If, indeed, America is headed toward more, quote, radical, times, if its people really feel threatened, they're not going to want some kind of half-measure. They're going to want somebody strong."

School desegregation and busing were overriding issues of that era, and Duke inserted himself into the hubbub wherever possible, joining protests in Boston, Louisville and Louisiana. But year by year, even though Duke was gaining national publicity, he found himself squeezed from both sides. Citizens who agreed with him on busing were afraid to associate with him because of the Klan, while hard-core racists found his essentially nonviolent Klan wing less attractive than an offshoot branch where followers showed their guns in towns in Mississippi and Alabama.

By 1980, for practical rather than ideological reasons, Duke quit the Klan and formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). He explained the decision later in an interview published in Hustler magazine: "I hoped we could change the media image of the typical Klansman -- the ignorant, toothless, gun-toting hatemonger talking about race war. Eventually, I came to realize there was no way I was going to change that image."

The difference between the NAAWP and the Klan was superficial. A typical NAAWP rally was held in the mid-1980s in the French Quarter here. Duke wore a business suit and his followers were without white hoods. But the discourse was classic white fright, according to a transcript of the rally published in Duke's NAAWP News.

Duke: Sweden's going brown. Any more Ingrid Bergmans?

Crowd: No!

Duke: America's going brown. Any more Cheryl Tiegs?

Crowd: No!

Duke: France is going brown. Any more Bridget Bardots?

Crowd: No!

Duke: What does this mean?

Crowd: WE WILL DIE!

Aside from public rallies and national interviews, Duke's primary forum during the 1980s was the NAAWP News, a tabloid journal that he edited and that had about 10,000 subscribers nationally. Back copies of the paper are part of the David Duke file at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, a leading national library on the civil rights movement and hate groups.

Here is a sampling of Duke's writings in his newspaper:

"Rapes resulting from street abduction and break-ins are a plague intrinsically associated with Blacks and overwhelmingly committed by them. At the turn of this century, with the Indian wars over, no racial minority would dare to lay his hands on a defenseless woman or child without the most severe and swift retribution imaginable."

"The truth is that Blacks kill, maim, rob and rape more white people in only one year than the total number of Blacks lynched in the entire 200-year history of the United States! It is important to remember that even the most biased historians don't deny that the overwhelming majority of those lynched in the past were guilty of some hideous acts of brutality and violence."

"The Negro brain is smaller and is housed in a smaller and thicker skull, with a groove in it. The black's lips are larger and everted. His nose is flatter and his jaw tends to be prognathous. . . . In fact there are so many differences between us it is senseless to call us brothers."

"The media is dominated by Jews. You know it and everybody knows it. They own the store. As a result, the media -- and by media I mean movies, TV, newspapers and magazines -- is more a reflection of Jewish values than Western values. These Jews are not good Americans. They have no understanding of what America is."

Issue after issue of the NAAWP News was filled with attacks on blacks and Jews. At one point, the newspaper published a map that Duke called the "Divided States of America," where whites would inhabit most of the country and other ethnic groups would be forced into small enclaves that he named New Africa, New Cuba, West Israel, Francia, Navahona, Minoria and East Mongolia. Most issues featured a photo display of interracial love, usually a black man with a white woman, with a headline such as, "How Do You Feel about This?" and a photo caption that Duke wrote. It decried the "saturation of pro interracial propaganda."

Although the newspaper was under Duke's control during the period, his byline was not on the remapping article, and he later said he was not responsible for it and did not condone it. A copy of the map was pinned above the desk at his office in suburban Metairie three years ago when he was a legislative candidate.

The newspaper often included inserts that appealed for money. Duke's finances during that period were unusual. Records at the Louisiana Department of Revenue and Taxation show that he did not file state income tax returns from 1984 to 1987. He paid the taxes in 1990 after press revelations.

In 1988, Duke ran for president, first as a Democrat and then at the head of the Populist Party, a collection of extreme right-wingers and neo-Nazis. At first, he thought of himself as black candidate Jesse L. Jackson's opposite and that he might receive as many votes as Jackson. But Jackson the Democrat garnered 7 million votes and Duke virtually nothing beyond a few parishes in Louisiana. It was time for him to refocus again, to remake himself. He became a Republican.

Beginning with his 1989 Louisiana state House race, Duke changed his vocabulary, dropping his most blatant attacks on blacks and Jews and focusing on voters' racial and economic discontent through mainstream issues of affirmative action and welfare spending. He found magic in that appeal and refined it for his race against Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) last year and in his push to become governor this fall. Duke also remade himself physically, undergoing plastic surgery on his face.

Asked during a recent interview whether he still thought that Jews controlled the media, Duke said, "I think liberals do. Some are Jews; some are not. There are many good conservative Jewish people. I don't see any conspiracy along those lines."

Had his perspective on blacks changed? "We all become more tolerant in our lives," he said. "We all have the power to change in our lives. I've met many wonderful black people I greatly admire."

Mellowing With Religion

Duke said he could not pin down when he began to moderate his views. "It hasn't been a 180-degree turn," he said. "Growing up is part of life. It was a gradual process." He attributed part of his mellowing to what he called a renewed "commitment to Christ."

For several years, Duke had identified himself as an atheist or agnostic. But he said the intensity of the campaign against him in the 1989 legislative race forced him to seek religious salvation. He told a radio audience on WWL here Thursday night that, after a day of campaigning in that race, he would cry in the shower and that the tears "turned to prayers."

Rickey said she saw the new and the old Duke during the intense summer of 1989. They talked on the telephone for hours, she said. "He would start out with this conservative angle about welfare, but then he would say, 'Beth, once you know the truth, you'll never be the same.' His truth was that Jews are behind all the trouble in the world. It always came back to the Jews. It was something else. He bought me books that he wanted me to read, and it started working on my psyche. I almost got into the Stockholm syndrome, identifying with my captor. He was working on my head, the same way he has done with the voters."

Rickey said Duke told her that it was his spiritual destiny to be a legislator and probably to be president. She said she would never forget one hot summer night when he took her for a ride in his convertible sports car. There was Duke, cruising down Interstate 10, hair blowing in the wind, singing along to a tape of "Man of La Mancha," crooning his impossible dream: "One man, torn and covered with scars. . . . "

"He doesn't see how funny he is," Rickey said. "It's kind of disturbing when you know you've got a zealot on your hands."