In the colorful, clamorous, chronically crooked world of Louisiana politics in the 20th century, three governors stand larger than life.

There was the grandiose orator and feared autocrat Huey P. Long, who ruled Louisiana as if he owned it, from 1928 until he was assassinated in 1935.

There was his brother, Earl K. Long, governor three times between 1939 and 1960, a beloved, somewhat goofy character who remained officially untainted by the graft around him. "I was the most investigated man in Louisiana," he used to say, "and nobody ever proved anything against me."

And then there is former governor Edwin W. Edwards, heir to the Longs' populist legacy, a flamboyant, four-term Democrat who dominated this capital city with roguish charm and an outrageous wit from 1972 to 1996. Mightily as they tried for years, corruption investigators never proved anything against him either.

But that was before their latest effort, a 34-count racketeering indictment that has put Edwards, 72, and six other defendants, including a state senator, on trial in U.S. District Court here.

In a state where voters for generations tended to merely wink at the rampant, unabashed chicanery of their public officials, the case that prosecutors began laying out against Edwards last week--allegations of bribery and extortion in the awarding of riverboat casino licenses--is more than just an indictment of an ex-governor. To many here, it also symbolizes the withering of an old political culture in Louisiana, a corrosive culture of laissez-faire ethics and self-aggrandizement, shaped by the Longs and embodied for a quarter-century by "Fast Eddie" Edwards, his foes allege.

"They have not made a prosecutor yet who could ambush me," Edwards, who has pleaded not guilty, told reporters outside the courthouse recently. He scoffed at the evidence against him with the same self-assurance he brings to his favorite pastime: high-stakes poker. Federal prosecutors put him on trial twice in the mid-1980s, during his third term as governor, accusing him of pocketing $2 million in an illegal scheme to sell state hospital construction permits. The first trial ended with jurors deadlocked; in the retrial, he was acquitted.

This time, however, there is a sense among longtime Edwards-watchers that the irrepressible showman-politician--who has amused the public and frustrated prosecutors for years--is in by far the worst legal jam of his career. In a trial that is expected to last about three months, the U.S. attorney's office will have two evidentiary weapons it lacked in Edwards's previous trials.

The first is Edwards's own soft southern voice. With hidden microphones, FBI agents secretly recorded hundreds of conversations among Edwards, his co-defendants and some of the casino developers who allegedly were coerced for more than $3 million in payoffs in a series of schemes beginning in 1991, before Edwards regained the governorship for a record fourth term, and continuing after he left office in 1996.

Jurors also will hear testimony from developers who allegedly were extorted, including Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., the former chairman of the National Football League's San Francisco 49ers. DeBartolo, who in a deal with prosecutors has pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to report a felony, gave Edwards a briefcase containing $400,000 in cash in March 1997, according to the indictment. Edwards, then out of office, allegedly had threatened to use his influence to block DeBartolo's bid for a casino license.

"There's a feeling among everyone I talk to that this time it's for real," said former governor Buddy Roemer (R), referring to the case against his old political rival. The two faced each other twice in gubernatorial races, each with a win and a loss. "There's a feeling that this time there are going to be consequences," said Roemer, now a Baton Rouge banker. "This time people don't think he's going to walk away smiling and flashing a victory sign, saying, 'C'est la vie.' "

Edwards, a Cajun sharecropper's son, became Louisiana's first French-speaking Catholic governor in 1972, after a stint in the state Senate and three terms in Congress. A gregarious, back-slapping dealmaker with a cutting wit, a self-cast champion of the common man, a big-money gambler with a taste for young ladies, he was the ideal outsize figure for those heady economic times. With energy prices booming, the state was awash in tax revenue from the oil industry. And Louisiana's abiding political ethos could be summed up in two words: Anything goes.

"Edwards was schooled in the politics of the Longs, where governors acted as Santa Claus," said Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State University political scientist. "It was just a matter of having a lot of money around. As long as the people got what they wanted, they generally didn't care if you skimmed a little off the top. People figured, 'Well, it's all right, it's not our money. It's Exxon's and Texaco's.' "

Plus Edwards knew how to make folks chuckle. "He's very funny, which Louisianans like," said Edward Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics in New Orleans. "Huey Long, Earl Long--he was another in that tradition of entertainers." Though his one-liners were not always original, they virtually never failed him. He relied on quips to deflect criticism, needle opponents, and lure news cameras and notebooks his way when he needed them. They almost always came.

He once famously said of a gubernatorial rival, "Dave Treen is so slow, it takes him an hour and a half to watch '60 Minutes.' " In 1983, confident of winning a third term after a period out of office, he told reporters that only one development could keep him from the governor's chair: "If I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

And there was that memorable morning during one of his trials in the mid-1980s, when Edwards arrived for court in a horse-drawn buggy, poking fun at the slow wheels of justice. After the first jury deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial in January 1986, a reporter yelled to the governor, "What's your answer to those who will say, 'Edwin Edwards is guilty as hell, but the prosecution just wasn't smart enough to convict him?' "

Edwards grinned. "They're half right."

By then his popularity had waned. The oil bust in the early 1980s had shattered Louisiana's economy, and Edwards, since returning as governor in 1984, had done nothing to repair the damage. As the good times ended, Parent said, so did the average Louisianan's tolerance for shenanigans in public office. And just as the the state's economy has failed to recover in the years since, he said, Louisiana voters have yet to regain a sense of humor about chicanery in government.

"The political climate, the economic climate, they're not conducive to another Edwin Edwards," said Parent. "I don't think we'll see anything quite like him again."

In the first hospital-permits trial, an FBI agent testified that Edwards, in the early 1980s, had lost more than $2 million in 17 excursions to Nevada casinos. So the public, even after his May 1986 acquittal, was in no mood to trust him when he proposed legalizing gambling as a cure for recession. It was a few years later, under then-Gov. Roemer, that lawmakers approved riverboat casinos.

But it was under Edwards that the licenses were awarded, after he regained the governorship virtually by default in 1991. After finishing ahead of the unpopular Roemer in a bipartisan primary, Edwards wound up facing none other than former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the runoff election. Louisianans well remember a ubiquitous bumper sticker that fall: "Elect the Crook. It's Important." They did.

According to prosecutors, by the time Edwards was sworn in, the extortion and bribery schemes were well underway, with Edwards calling the shots. "Edwin Edwards," the indictment reads, "sometimes referred to as 'the boss,' 'the man,' 'the big man,' 'the little man,' 'the head man,' 'the old man,' and 'the Governor' . . ." He is named in 28 counts, punishable by more than 300 years in prison if convicted.

"There can be no satisfaction for anyone in this," said Roemer, when asked if he was pleased about the trial. "To me, it's sad."

What about an epitaph for his old rival?

Roemer paused.

"He left them broke, but laughing."

CAPTION: At courthouse, former governor Edwin W. Edwards (D), center, is being tried for a third time on corruption charges.