WASHINGTON -- In a move that puts racial politics at the forefront of the 1992 campaign, David E. Duke announced yesterday that he will challenge President Bush in the Republican presidential primaries next year.
The 41-year-old Louisiana state representative, a one-time Ku Klux Klan leader and former American Nazi, hopes to use his primary campaign as a springboard to an independent, third-party candidacy next fall that could damage Mr. Bush's re-election chances.
Mr. Duke is casting himself as a champion of "Christian" values as he delivers a message designed to appeal to millions of frustrated, working-class whites now feeling the painful pinch of economic recession.
In his announcement speech, he repeatedly attacked Mr. Bush, saying the president had "sold out" the Republican Party by signing the 1991 Civil Rights Act and was now "waffling" on the issue of racial quotas. And making use of broken English, Mr. Duke criticized Japan for its failure to open its markets wider to U.S. goods.
Although he is running as the ultimate "outsider" candidate, Mr. Duke was the first 1992 presidential contender to declare his candidacy in Washington, availing himself of the nation's largest concentration of news organizations. The National Press Club conference room where he made his announcement was jammed with scores of reporters and photographers, and his remarks were carried live over national cable TV.
Mr. Duke called for the adoption of an "America first" foreign policy and blamed the administration's free-trade policies for the loss of U.S. jobs.
"I come from Louisiana. We produce rice. We must go to the Japanese and say: 'You no buy our rice, we no buy your cars,' " he said. Asked later whether this was an ethnic slur, Mr. Duke said no, he wasn't "making fun of any race."
Describing illegal immigration as "the big issue" of the election, he said Mr. Bush had helped open U.S. borders to a "massive" invasion from non-European countries.
"We've got to begin to protect our values," Mr. Duke said. "We've got to begin to realize that we're a Christian society. We're part of Western, Christian civilization, and we see a process right now in the country where we can't even sing Christmas carols in many of our public schools anymore."
He said further that non-European immigration should be halted, and he termed the current wave of Haitians attempting to enter the United States "a disaster for this country."
During his speech and at an often tense news conference afterward, he was interrupted several times by hecklers shouting "liar" and "Nazi." One man, wearing a yarmulke and carrying a sign that read, "David Duke: Nazi of the 90's," was hustled from the room by Duke bodyguards after he tried to rush the podium.
Mr. Duke is the first of two Republicans expected to challenge Mr. Bush in the primaries that begin in less than 11 weeks. Former White House aide Patrick J. Buchanan intends to announce next week, and Mr. Duke said he might throw his support to him at the GOP convention in Houston if he is the stronger candidate.
Mr. Bush had no immediate comment, but his chief spokesman, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, denounced Mr. Duke as representing "the worst of American politics . . . bigotry, racism and other qualities that have no place in American political life."
Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, in a statement, called Mr. Duke's presidential candidacy "absurd" and an "ugly response to the economic stagnation of the Reagan-Bush years."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer said in Annapolis yesterday that he was "very much opposed" to Mr. Duke even running on the ballot in Maryland. "I do not like a person who espouses anti-Semitic talk and then changes it by saying it is not racially motivated," Mr. Schaefer said.
Mr. Duke's announcement comes less than three weeks after his defeat in the Louisiana governor's race, and opens his fifth campaign in as many years. In 1988, he ran for president on a populist ticket and attracted few votes; his lone victory came in 1989, when he won election to a two-year state legislative term that ends next month.
But his latest political venture is Mr. Duke's first as a certified national figure. Thanks to the publicity generated by his campaign for governor, in which he captured a clear majority of the white vote, he is better known at this point than nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates.
More importantly, he is running during a period of national economic distress, historically the time that racial scapegoating has proven most effective in American politics.
He is pitching his candidacy to millions of Americans who believe the federal government is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.
In an echo of George Wallace's presidential campaigns of two decades ago, he vowed to be a voice for "the grass roots of America" who would "stand up for our principles and our values."
He plans to enter all the Republican primaries except New Hampshire's, because, he said, it is too late to organize an effective campaign there.
He said he thought he could do particularly well in the Southern primary states, including Florida, Texas and Louisiana.
Mr. Duke defended his credentials as a Republican but did not hesitate to flaunt the threat of a third-party candidacy in the fall.
"I want to say this to George Bush . . . whether I run third-party or not is going to depend on what he does," said Mr. Duke, in a transparent attempt to pressure the president into moving closer to his own stance against affirmative action and other programs designed to redress past discrimination against blacks.
Mr. Duke reserved his harshest words for the Democrats, denouncing them as "the active agents that are destroying this nation."
He referred twice to the Democrats as the party of Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown but denied, in response to a reporter's question, that identifying them with two of their best-known black figures was a way of "playing the race card" using code words.