Steve Scalise was a budding Louisiana state lawmaker eager to ascend the Republican ranks when he quickly accepted an offer to address a white-supremacist organization 12 years ago.

The invitation came from a neighbor in his New Orleans suburb who was the longtime political strategist for former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, and it gave Scalise the chance to appear before a politically active constituency that could prove helpful in future campaigns.

“He recognized how popular I was in his own district,” Duke said in an interview.

This week’s revelation that Scalise, now the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, spoke at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization illustrates the ways the New South and the Old South can collide in today’s Republican politics.

Racist elements have long been a part of political life in Louisiana and throughout the Deep South, but Scalise’s skillful ability to balance them with his party’s modern-day need to appeal to a rapidly diversifying electorate enabled his rise.

Scalise was one of only six state representatives to vote in 2004 against a holiday memorializing Martin Luther King Jr., and he was a firm opponent of efforts by black mayors of New Orleans to draw more government funding for the city.

Yet, at 49, Scalise has separated himself from some of the more racially polarizing associations that characterized some older Southern politicians in both parties. In 2003, a year after addressing the white-supremacist group, Scalise became an early supporter of Bobby Jindal, an Indian American gubernatorial candidate running against a white Republican heavily backed by the party establishment.

“That would not be the move of anybody interested in white supremacy, getting behind the dark horse, son of immigrants, person of color for governor,” said Stephen Gele, a New Orleans lawyer and Scalise friend.

Scalise was adamant Tuesday that he did not agree with the white nationalists and neo-Nazi activists he addressed in 2002. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive and religious views groups like these hold,” Scalise said in a statement.

Some of Scalise’s intimates and associates insisted in interviews Tuesday that the congressman is not racist. They offered testimonials to make their point.

Friend Jeb Bruneau said he and Scalise coached a New Orleans basketball league of predominantly black young men in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After practices, which were at a gym next to a housing project, they took the players out to eat, Bruneau recalled.

“He showed the kids a positive spirit,” Bruneau said. “He has strong character. He’s a good guy.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) says he won a three-way race for majority whip because his coalition was united, and says his election is "a win for America." (The Associated Press)

Jindal, elected governor in 2007 on his second try and now pondering a presidential run, came to Scalise’s defense this week, calling him “a good man who is fair-minded and kindhearted. I’m confident he absolutely rejects racism in all its forms.” Also publicly vouching for Scalise was Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the only African American in the state’s congressional delegation and a buddy of Scalise from their days together in the state legislature.

Scalise represents one of the most conservative parts of Louisiana. His congressional district, which includes Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes outside New Orleans, is the whitest in the state; blacks make up only 13 percent of the district’s residents. For decades, this had been the center of Duke’s political base.

“Republicans there don’t worry about being evenhanded or about being centrist,” said former Democratic senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr., whom Duke tried unsuccessfully to unseat in 1990.

In the early 2000s, when Scalise addressed the white-supremacist group, “Duke was on the edge of the mainstream,” recalled Gele, who said he regularly talked politics with Scalise at the time. Duke’s supporters “weren’t politically insignificant.”

But, Gele added, Scalise often resisted Duke’s base — as he did when he backed Jindal. “Steve interacted with the people that were running against Duke’s allies,” Gele said. “Steve was helping to create what today is the Republican Party of Louisiana, which is not a bunch of racists.”

Scalise served in the state legislature for 12 years, waiting for a promotion to Congress. He got it in 2008. In Washington, Scalise’s easy temperament won him friends. A gregarious backslapper, he celebrates his Italian Catholic background and, in a nod to his Louisiana roots, serves Cajun food to colleagues in his office suite. He tries to avoid being tagged as a political extremist but has a hard-right streak and chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee before ascending to majority whip.

One of Scalise’s assets in the leadership is that he has been able to sway rabble-rousing members who often cause headaches for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). On the House floor, he will sit down next to a colleague he is trying to win over, place his arm around his or her shoulder, lean in close and talk.

Scalise’s political associates say he tolerates political outsiders and even some gadflies more than most leaders, eager always to turn anyone into an ally. That persona has fueled his climb to power. It has also invited controversy.

Scalise’s invitation to address the 2002 convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, came from his neighbor, Kenny Knight, the longtime Duke adviser.

“Steve knew who I was, but I don’t think he held it against me,” Knight said. “And I didn’t see a problem with having him speak.”

Duke said: “Kenny knew Scalise. Scalise knew Kenny. They were friendly. . . . Kenny would keep Scalise up to date on my issues.”

But Duke said he had no personal relationship with Scalise, nor did he consider Scalise a devotee. “I didn’t get the impression that he was one of us,” he said.

Knight said that he and Scalise often exchanged ideas about politics but that “we wouldn’t talk about race or the Jewish question.”

The EURO conference was held at a Best Western hotel in Metairie. Duke, who was in Russia at the time, spoke remotely. Scalise delivered 15 minutes of remarks before the opening session, according to Knight.

Attendee Ronald Doggett, the head of the Virginia chapter of EURO, said he could not recall Scalise’s remarks. But Doggett delivered a presentation alleging that whites faced discrimination in securing government contracts because of affirmative-action programs.

“Affirmative action is just a perfumed term for white discrimination,” Doggett said in an interview. He said other topics discussed at the conference included “forced integration,” “protecting our [European-American] cultural identity” and “battling demographic challenges taking place in America.”

Scalise maintains that when he accepted the invitation he did not know about the group’s associations with neo-Nazis and white nationalists. “For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” Scalise told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday night.

Still, Scalise was well versed in the political orientation of Duke and his followers years before the speech. In 1999, Roll Call reported that Scalise said he embraces many of Duke’s “conservative” views but considers himself to be a more electable politician. “The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” Scalise told the Capitol Hill newspaper.

Former Louisiana congressman Jeff Landry, who represented a neighboring district and is friends with Scalise, said that when they came of age politically in the 1990s, Duke disciples were politically active in their conservative districts.

“You’ve got to remember that David Duke’s support was complicated back then, that people supported him because they wanted something different, not always because they agreed with him on race,” Landry said. “Whenever you hear his name, you think, ‘Gosh, that’s not where our party is,’ but in some areas, he did have some people who were drawn in that direction.”

Dan Balz, Alice Crites and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.