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display export??

Im new to debian so Im not familiar with all the display settings.  When I used mandrake, there were certain programs that needed to be run as root - like linuxconf/mtv/xcdroast etc....all I needed to do was su and run them.  Now in debian when I try such a move, i get a "cant set display" not authorized ........
do I need to export DISPLAY localhost?  Im not sure of the syntax...am I on the right track?

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