Incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston jumped off to a lead in fragmentary returns Saturday against state Rep. David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who so rattled the political Establishment that the endorsed Republican dropped out of the race.
With just a few hundred absentee ballots counted, Johnston, a Democrat, had 478 votes, or 64%, Duke had 268 votes, or 36%, and two minor candidates had six votes between them. Those votes were reported from north-central Louisiana, considered more sympathetic to Duke than the New Orleans area.
State Sen. Ben Bagert dropped out of the race on Thursday in an effort to help Johnston win the majority he would need to claim a fourth term without a runoff. Bagert's name remained on the ballot, but under state law his votes could not be counted as part of the official tally.
Louisiana's unique open primary system puts all candidates on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation. An outright win required a majority in the first primary; otherwise, the two top vote-getters square off.
Johnston, 58, had carried a strong lead in the polls, but analysts said the level of support for Duke, a first-term state representative who was a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard in the 1970s, might not be accurately reflected.
Bagert had run a distant third throughout the campaign despite President Bush's endorsement. He quit under pressure from Republican Party leaders who feared the party could be harmed if Duke made the runoff carrying the GOP banner.
Eight Republican senators and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp endorsed Johnston.
A poll released Wednesday by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., showed Johnston was the choice of 53% of voters surveyed. Duke drew 26%, while Bagert polled 8%, with 13% undecided. The poll of 825 registered voters had a margin of error of 3.5%.
Duke, 40, threatened to sue over absentee ballots cast before Bagert got out, arguing the voters should have another chance. About 62,000 absentee ballots--a state record--were cast.
Also on the ballot were congressional races, a lottery proposal and some hot local races, all of which added up to more than 8,000 candidates statewide, the biggest number of candidates in state history.
Secretary of State Fox McKeithen predicted a heavy turnout of 75%.
In U.S. House races, Democrats were hoping to gain a majority of the state's eight-member delegation, now split 4 to 4.
In the 4th District of northwest Louisiana, Jim McCrery, a Republican, faced a stiff battle against state Sen. Foster Campbell, a Democrat who previously had lost to McCrery, in a race dominated by debate over abortion.
In New Orleans' 2nd District, 12 candidates vied to succeed retiring Democrat Lindy Boggs, the only white House member to represent a majority black district.
In the 8th District of central Louisiana, Republican Clyde C. Holloway was in a race with two Democratic state senators, Joe McPherson and Cleo Fields.
Other incumbents were expected to win easily. Republican Rep. Richard H. Baker, from Baton Rouge, was unopposed.
Other races included the battle for the New Orleans district attorney's office.
Incumbent Harry Connick, acquitted over the summer of federal charges of illegally helping a bookmaker by returning copies of his gambling records, faced two opponents. Connick is the father of Grammy Award-winning musician Harry Connick Jr.
Duke, who calls himself a civil rights leader for white people, campaigned vigorously as the champion of those tired of affirmative action and welfare abuse.
Johnston hammered away at Duke's past while touting his own seniority and chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee.
One Johnston advertisement showed Duke wearing a robe and saluting a fiery cross in Nazi style. Johnston said Duke's election would harm Louisiana's efforts to diversify its economy and would cost the state military installations.
After he resigned from the klan in 1979, Duke formed the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People. He won his first political office in early 1989 with a narrow victory for a state House seat, despite endorsements of his opponent during the campaign by then-President Ronald Reagan.
Duke has apologized for his past ties with the klan and said it was a youthful mistake. But the telephone number for the klan and Duke's Metairie office were still identical in early 1989. He also sold Nazi literature from that office until a Republican Party member reported the practice.
He delighted in calling the incumbent "J. Benedict Johnston" and saying that Johnston had voted with the "liberal Democratic majority" in the Senate to the detriment of Louisiana's interests.
Although Johnston voted along conservative lines on such issues as defense, Duke criticized him for leading Senate opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork and for supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1990.