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GOP treads on Democratic turf

Not even West Virginia? Democratic leaders here are dismayed at the thought that Walter Mondale may not pull off a victory even in this heavily Democratic state.

Mountainous West Virginia should be a natural for a Democratic presidential candidate. With its ailing smokestack industries and coal mines, it has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. It has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. It was also one of six states that went for Jimmy Carter in 1980.

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Strange as it may seem, local political observers say, these factors are not pointing to the logical easy win for Mondale. And if he can't carry West Virginia, they add, he can't expect to win the rest of the country.

''If Mondale loses West Virginia - six electoral votes - he loses the election,'' says David Owen, editor of the Parkersburg Sentinel.

Polls show Ronald Reagan leading his rival, and Republicans in some other races are putting up a spirited battle. Two-term Democratic Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV, who has spent more than $9 million on his Senate race, is still expected to win over GOP political neophyte John Raese.

But Democratic Congressman Alan Mollahan, running for a second term from the First District, is in a tight race with Republican James Altmeyer. And former GOP Gov. Arch Moore is favored in his bid to return to the State House - especially since endorsing collective bargaining for teachers.

President Reagan's visit here this week was aimed primarily at giving the Republican contenders a boost.

There are proportionately more Republicans in this northwest county than anywhere else in West Virginia. But driving through surrounding small towns, nestled among hills highlighted with the hues of autumn, one comes across Democrats who also say they'll vote for Reagan. They are not always enthusiastic , complaining that the choice is ''the lesser of two evils.'' But they seem to view Reagan as a stronger leader with a better defense policy, a sense of economic direction, and a more acceptable position on abortion.

''I don't care for taxes,'' says Betty Holland, who runs a clothing shop in the small town of Harrisville. ''My whole family are Democrats, but we're all voting for Reagan. I also like his defense policies; we have to be stronger than the Russians, and Mondale would be weaker.''

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Douglas Jackson, owner of Western Auto Associates in the same town, voted for Carter and is not keen about Reagan. But he thinks that Reagan has at least tackled the welfare question.

''I see so many people able to work that have a handful of food stamps, and I'm buying hot dogs,'' he comments. ''People that need help should have it. But the programs have been blown out of proportion. Reagan's tried to rein that in.''

Although West Virginia has an equal-rights amendment, Geraldine Ferraro is controversial. ''Mondale made a mistake when he picked her,'' says Robert Shepherd, a worker at a chemical plant in St. Mary's. ''A lot of women here don't like her. I was for Carter, but I'll probably vote for Reagan because the economy's doing better, even though we have lots of people out of work in these parts.''

For Jeff Bosley, a construction worker in Parkersburg, the Democratic ticket is a poor one. ''Mondale's too strung out, and Ferraro blows up too easy,'' he says. ''She adds a negative - not just because she's a woman, but because of the money problems. And Mondale tries to say what's wrong about Reagan instead of what's good about himself.''

Democratic leaders call this a ''strange election'': people not talking much about it; unions not supporting the Democratic candidate for governor; many young people registering Republican; and many jobless planning to vote for Reagan.

One key Democratic official, who asks not to be identified, says the problem is lack of freshness in the party: ''The party hasn't recognized what it refused to recognize in 1980 - that people do not feel we are offering solutions to things. The New Deal was fine, but it has passed.''

The party leader believes many Democrats may vote for Reagan and Mr. Moore simply to get on the bandwagon of a Republican victory, hoping thereby to get as much benefit from Washington for West Virginia as possible. ''Mondale's not disliked in this state, so the only reason I can find is that West Virginians might feel Reagan's going to be reelected, and things may be better for us if we vote for him,'' he says in a tone of perplexity. ''People mostly vote their pocketbooks.''

That does not always spell Reagan, of course. At Plant No. 1 of the Ames Company, which produces shovels, worker Paul McMulle, a Republican, says he'll vote for Mondale because Reagan ''hasn't done anything for the workingman except take money away,'' and because he thinks Reagan is a ''union buster.''

Carl Boyles, another plant worker, is concerned about competition from foreign imports. ''Mondale is the man to stop foreign imports and create jobs,'' he says. ''I've seen 35 to 45 jobs cut at this plant because of imports.''

Especially worrisome to state Democratic leaders is the gravitation of many young people to the GOP. The phenomenon is viewed as a change in the cultural and economic climate.

''When I was in college in the 1960s, we were fired up by Kennedy and a sense of giving up material things for the social good,'' says Edwin Johnson, who teaches at Parkersburg Community College. ''Nowadays, most of the students ask what they need to get a good job.

''But that's how society has turned us,'' says Allen Brooks, a student at the college. ''You have to go to school, and you have to have money.''

It seems to be leadership rather than issues that will dominate the vote here Tuesday. ''But I feel good about Reagan and have confidence in the guy,'' says a local Democrat.

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