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Official GOP Candidate Drops Out to Help Democrat Beat Duke

October 4, 1990 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The official GOP candidate dropped out of Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race Thursday to boost the Democratic incumbent’s chances of defeating ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke without a runoff.

State Sen. Ben Bagert’s withdrawal turned Saturday’s Senate primary election into essentially a two-man race between three-term Sen. Bennett Johnston and Duke, a state legislator who is running as a Republican without party support.

Bagert’s name will remain on the ballot, but the Secretary of State Fox McKeithen said votes for Bagert would not be counted if he formally notified state officials he was out. That makes it almost certain one candidate would get more than half the votes and avert a runoff.

National GOP leaders had openly expressed fear that Bagert would pull enough votes to force Duke and Johnston into a runoff Nov. 6. With Duke on the ballot, labeled as a Republican, the race could hurt GOP candidates nationwide.

″All of us would be embarrassed and mortified to have to serve in the United States Senate with David Duke masquerading as a Republican,″ said Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.

Bagert said his polls indicated that Duke’s support was unwavering and that the Bagert ads were drawing votes from Johnston.

″As my campaign finally began to get on track in the last couple of weeks,″ Bagert said, ″it became more and more apparent, that instead of forcing a runoff between myself and Bennett Johnston, I might very well be forcing a runoff between somebody else and Bennett Johnston.″

After announcing his decision, Bagert was asked if he would vote for Johnston. ″Yes, reluctantly,″ he replied. ″I’m not endorsing anybody, but I’m not voting for David Duke.″

Duke and Johnston said Bagert’s withdrawal was good news.

″It’s been a two-man race for some time and this makes it very clear. The Bagert vote kind of confused things,″ said Johnston. ″I’m very much hoping that that Bagert vote, which has been about 8 percent, would come to me.″

″I think if he gets out we’ll just have to whip Johnston in the first primary,″ Duke said. He called it a clear choice between a liberal and a conservative.

Louisiana’s unique open primary system puts all candidates on one ballot, regardless of party. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is held between the top two vote-getters.

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Despite several polls that have shown him a distant second to Johnston in recent months, Duke said his own polls show him running even with the incumbent. He said Bagert’s withdrawal will help him win the election because he will pick up Bagert’s votes.

But pollster Joe Walker said Bagert’s decision ″kind of decides it for Johnston.″

″The polls I’ve seen indicate that the Bagert vote is not a Duke vote,″ said Walker. ″Bagert has run as a very strident anti-Duke candidate from the very beginning. So as a result, the vote he did attract is not one that would transfer to Duke.″

Although Johnston has voted a conservative line on such issues as defense spending and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, he was attacked by Duke and Bagert as an ″ultra-liberal.″ One reason was his lead role in defeating former President Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Another was his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which his opponents said would impose racial hiring quotas on American businesses.

″I’m going to vote for the things the people of this state want and now we’re going to have a clear-cut choice and I can win on Saturday,″ said Duke, who has run a campaign calling for welfare reform and an end to affirmative action programs.

But the most recent poll indicated Johnston could eke out a first-ballot victory even with Bagert in the race.

The poll released Wednesday by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., showed Johnston was the choice of 53 percent of voters surveyed. Duke drew 26 percent, while Bagert polled 8 percent. Thirteen percent were undecided, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 3.5 points. The poll of 825 registered voters was taken Sunday through Tuesday.

Still, Mason-Dixon officials and other pollsters generally agree that Duke has hidden support. As Susan Howell, a pollster at the University of New Orleans put it, Duke ″flies under radar.″

Bagert had been endorsed by President Bush in radio and television ads. But polls consistently showed him running a poor third.

Eight Republican senators from other states endorsed Johnston on Wednesday - a move Johnston called unprecedented in party politics.

In Washington, Charles Black, chief spokesman for the Republican Party, said Bagert’s withdrawal was ″just the final insurance against Duke getting any further.″

Three minor candidates also were on the ballot, but one dropped out earlier this week ″to help Johnston.″ The others weren’t expected to affect the outcome.